12/17 responses, reviews, interview
“I’m traveling heavy with illusions.”
Not only is Victor referring to his fantasizing of the ordinary to make his life better, or more exciting, but it really foreshadows the ultimate outcome that I took away from this book: the Indians in this novel, on this reservation, play a great role in holding themselves back. These illusions, to me, meant the tricks of the mind, knowing too much and thinking too much. As James says, reality is a matter of perception.
“Some nights I would fall asleep to the sounds of my parents’ lovemaking.”
Most kids would be repelled by that noise, but because it’s one of the only times both his parents are happy and peaceful Victor appreciates those nights.
“I ain’t interested in what’s real. I’m interested in how things should be.”
There is a way human beings live, and are conditioned to live, that may not be the way we are supposed to live by nature. Reality may be the way things are at this moment, but it certainly does not mean it’s uninfluenced.
“They fought each other with the kind of graceful anger that only love can create”
Reflecting on my own relationships, there is a specific anger that only love can create. People seem to get the angriest at those they love, but when love is absent, why put in the time and energy after a certain point?
Quotes for Tao Lin, from The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fist Fight in Heaven, Sherman Alexie, The Atlantic Monthly Press, New York, 1993.
"The Fun House": , the story of his aunt and how her tubes were tied without her comprehension or informed consent:
1.". . .once she made a full-length beaded dress that was too heavy for anyone to wear.
"'It's just like the sword in the stone,' she said. 'When a woman comes along who can carry the weight of this dress on her back, then we'll have found the one who will save us all.'" (page 76)
2. "My aunt smiled and laughed. She was a beautiful dancer, had given lessons at the Arthur Murray Dance Studio to pay her way through community college. She had also danced topless in a Seattle bar to put food in her child's stomach.
There are all kinds of dancing." (page 78)
1. "". . . But it felt good, that ball in my hands, all those possibilities and angles. It was mathematics, geometry. It was beautiful." (page 175)
2. "Throw the first punch,' Stevie said again.
'No,' Randy said again.
'Throw the first punch!' Stevie said for the third time, and Randy reared back and pitched a knuckle fastball that broke Stevie's nose.
We all stood there in silence, in awe.
That was Randy, my soon-to-be first and best friend, who taught me the most valuable lesson about living in the white world: Always throw the first punch." (page 176)
3"I could hear the hear the white girls' forced vomiting, a sound so familiar and natural to me after years of listening to my father's hangovers.
'GIve me your lunch if you're just going to throw it up,' I said to one of those girls once.
I sat back and watched them grow skinny from self-pity.
Back on the reservation, my mother stood in line to get us commodities. We carried them home, happy to have food, and opened the canned beef that even the gods wouldn't eat.
But we ate it day after day and grew skinny from self-pity. (page 177)
"The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven":
". . . but those arguments were just as damaging as a fist. Words can be like that, you know? Whenever I get into arguments, I remember her and I also remember Muhammad Ali. He knew the power of his fists but, more importantly, he knew the power of his words, too. Even though he only had an IQ of 80 or so, ALi was a genius. And she was a genius, too. She knew exactly what to say to cause me the most pain." (page 185)
Notes On The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fist Fight in Heaven by Sherman Alexie
1. Everybody in this book is drunk or in love with a drunk. And in writing about drunk Indians, I am dealing with stereotypical material. But I can only respond with the truth. In my family, counting parents, siblings, and dozens of aunts, uncles, and cousins, there are less than a dozen who are currently sober, and only a few who have never drank. When I write about the destructive effects of alcohol on Indians, I am not writing out of a literary stance or a colonized mind's need to reinforce stereotypes. I am writing autobiography. - Introduction xix
I selected this passage from the introduction because I wanted to hear (or read) Sherman's response to the criticisms of his work. There are numerous essays and articles which chastise the novelist for reinforcing racial stereotypes in his work. Those arguments typically critical around Alexie's choice to use alcoholism as a major plot theme in most, arguably all, of his fiction. Alexie has also been accused of recycling the same themes in his work to no avail. (See: http://www.nytimes.com/2012/11/25/books/review/blasphemy-by-sherman-alexie.html?pagewanted=2&_r=0). I was curious to know what Alexie had to say about these comments. The introduction in my paperback addition of this book is new. The author simply says he writes what he knows. Which, I believe, he has every right to do.
2. "My mother didn't say anything. She just wrapped me in her favorite quilt and went back to sleep. I stood on the porch all night long and imagined I heard motorcycles and guitars, until the sun rose so bright that I knew it was to go back inside to my mother. She made breakfast for both of us and we ate until we were full." -Page 36
This story was my favorite in the collection. Depressing and moving, I thought Sherman Alexie did a superb job at capturing single motherhood and a child's naive thoughts on the matter. Some of Alexie's fiction is filled with inside jokes or nods meant for people within the Native American community. I do not have a problem with this, but I thought this story could be enjoyed about anyone. That said, it worked very well in capturing a newly minted single mother's experience. The structure included lists as well as traditional prose. Sometimes this can create a jarring reading experience, but in this instance, this aspect enhanced the story.
3. "Adolph and Arnold reminded each other of their childhood, how they hid crackers in their shared bedroom so they would have something to eat"- Page 8
Poverty, after alcoholism, is another major theme in Sherman Alexie's fiction. The author captures the despair of hunger and dreams deferred with so much truth and strength. I believe this is, sadly, another example of Alexie writing what he knows. It is the small details that give the reader a true depiction of the realities facing poor children from underrepresented socioeconomic backgrounds . This aspect of the story stood with me.
Passages from Sherman Alexie The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven
1. "In other nightmares, in his everyday reality, Victor watched his father take a drink of vodka on a completely empty stomach. Victor could hear that near-poison fall, then hit, flesh and blood, nerve and vein. Maybe it was like lightning tearing an old tree into halves. Maybe it was like a wall of water, a reservation tsunami, crashing onto a small beach. Maybe it was like Hiroshima or Nagasaki. Maybe it was like all that. Maybe. But after he drank, Victor's father would breathe in deep and close his eyes, stretch, and straighten his neck and back. During those long drinks, Victor's father wasn't shaped like a question mark. He looked more like an exclamation point." - "Every Little Hurricane" p. 6
2. "When Indians make lots of money from corporations that way, we can all hear our ancestors laughing in the trees. But we never can tell whether they're laughing at the Indians or the whites. I think they're laughing at pretty much everybody." - "A Drug Called Tradition" p. 13
3. "There are things you should learn. Your past is a skeleton walking one step behind you, and your future is a skeleton walking one step in front of you. Maybe you don't wear a watch, but your skeletons do, and they always know what time it is. Now, these skeletons are made of memories, dreams, and voices. And they can trap you in the in-between, between touching and becoming. But they're not necessarily evil, unless you let them be.
What you have to do is keep moving, keep walking, in step with your skeletons. They ain't ever going to leave you, so you don't have to worry about that. Your past ain't going to fall behind, and you're future won't get too far ahead. Sometimes, though, your skeletons will talk to you, tell you to sit down and take a rest, breathe a little. Maybe they'll make you promises, tell you all the things you want to hear.
Sometimes your skeletons will dress up as beautiful Indian women and ask you to slow dance. Sometimes your skeletons will dress up as your best friend and offer you a drink, one more for the road. Sometimes your skeletons will look exactly like your parents and offer you gifts.
But, no matter what they do, keep walking, keep moving. And don't wear a watch. Hell, Indians never need to wear a watch because your skeletons will always remind you about the time. See, it is always now. That's what Indian time is. The past, the future, all of it is wrapped up in the now. That's how it is. We are trapped in the now." - "A Drug Called Tradition" p. 21-22
Jimi was twenty-eight when he died. That’s younger than Jesus Christ when he died. Younger than my father as we stood over the grave.
Victor was surprised. She had grown. She was the most enormous woman he had ever seen. Her hair fell down over her body, an explosion of horses. She was more beautiful than he wanted, more of a child of freeway exits and cable television, a mother to the children who waited outside 7-11 asking him to buy them a case of Coors Light. She sat on the bus travelling toward cities that grew, doubled. There was nothing he could give her father to earn her hand, nothing she would understand, remember.
Sometimes an Indian woman would work out of the motel and that always hurt Samuel more than anything he could ever imagine. In his dreams, he would see his own daughter’s face in the faces of the prostitutes.
On paydays, Samuel would give the Indian prostitutes a little money.
“Don’t work today,” he would say. “Just for today.”
Sometimes the Indian women would take his money and work anyway. But, once in a while, one of those Indian prostitutes would take the money and go drink coffee in Denny’s all day instead of working. Those were good days for Samuel.
I leaned through the basement window of the HUD house and kissed the white girl who would later be raped by her foster-parent father, who was also white. They both lived on the reservation, though, and when the headlines and stories filled the papers later, not one word was made of their color.
Just Indians being Indians, someone must have said somewhere and they were wrong.
An Indian Without Reservations
By Timothy Egan NYTimes
Published: January 18, 1998
The crowd at the old theater in Seattle is waiting for an American Indian, and they get one when 6-foot-2 Sherman Alexie strolls onstage, playing one of his fictional characters, Lester Falls Apart. Lester is stumblebum drunk, eyelids at half-mast, looking for some railroad tracks to lie down on. A vodka-guzzling native with a self-esteem problem, now there's a role model.
''What did you expect -- a warrior?'' says Alexie, slipping out of character. ''o.k., all right. Here's my warrior look. ...'' His face turns into a taut profile, one hand shading the eyes. ''You're supposed to stare at the sky, like you're looking for an eagle. Warrior. Pretty scary, huh?'' Long pause. Nervous laughter in the audience -- they thought they'd come for a literary reading, not a stand-up act. ''White people only like Indians if we're warriors or guardians of the earth. Guardians of the earth! Have any of you ever been to a reservation? A guest house is a rusted car up on blocks out behind a h.u.d. trailer.''
Alexie's act has them laughing at a full boil now, a sea of the ponytailed and turquoise-bedecked at a benefit for prison literacy. But their laughter is still edged with unease. Alexie is making fun of them, of what they expect from him. ''And what's with all these sensitive New Age guys beating drums in the woods, trying to be Indians? Hey, Indians gave that up a hundred years ago. Now we're sitting on the couch with the remote.''
Sherman Alexie is what Robin Williams might be like if he'd been raised on an Indian reservation and had a 20-foot jump shot. Basketball was going to be Alexie's salvation. In high school, he starred for the Reardan Indians, at the all-white school he attended in eastern Washington, just outside the Spokane tribal reservation where he was raised. But Alexie's hoop career bottomed out at the foul line in a deciding game. The headline in the local paper: ''Alexie Misses Free Throw, Indians Lose Again.'' Story of his life? Not quite.
For an athlete without literary dreams, a missed shot is just a callus to pick in middle age. For Alexie, it became part of his repertoire. A few years ago, Alexie joked that he was little more than ''the Indian du jour.'' If so, it has been a long day. At 31, he has published 10 books and has started any number of literary feuds, attacking non-Indian writers who borrow Indian themes. He has produced poetry, novels, screenplays, short stories and essays in a fast-break sprint. ''I know this, I know this,'' he wrote in ''One Little Indian Boy,'' a self-telling essay. ''I have so much left to say and I don't know how much time I have to say it all.''
And now comes the biggest leap yet, from print to the big screen. The movie ''Smoke Signals,'' which just had its premiere at the Sundance Film Festival (it will eventually be distributed by Miramax), is billed as the first Indian-produced, Indian-directed, Indian-written feature film. (Alexie wrote the screenplay and served as a producer.) It is a sweet, funny, sharply written tale that sprang from a short story in Alexie's 1993 collection, ''The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven.'' Alexie will also write and direct a much bigger film, ''Indian Killer,'' based on his 1996 novel of the same name, ''a feel-good thriller about interracial murder,'' as he calls it, only half in jest. Above all, he and his wife, Diane, an Indian of Hidatsa, Ho-Chunk and Potawatomie lineage, have just had their first child, a boy.
Alexie would like to shake the label that readers and critics constantly attach to his name, but believes it will always be there. ''I don't know how many panels I've been on where Dr. So-and-So is introduced as the expert on this, and then here's Sherman Alexie, the Indian,'' he says. He does not mind the word that Columbus gave to the North American natives; it is what most Indians call themselves, he says. And better him, he adds, than somebody who has no claim to it. One of Alexie's ongoing complaints is with people who try to benefit from all things Indian without experiencing any of the pain.
He has been particularly vocal in his attacks on Barbara Kingsolver, the best-selling author whose books include ''Pigs in Heaven,'' a novel about a single white mother and her adopted Cherokee daughter. Kingsolver once called Alexie, trying to smooth things over. He said to her what he has said repeatedly: ''When you finish writing about Indians, you get up from your typewriter and you're still white. When I finish, I have to go out and buy groceries, as an Indian.''
What Alexie is saying, essentially, is that only Indians can write about Indians, a point that riles many writers. Taken to its logical extreme, Alexie's complaint would severely limit the range of most authors, including Alexie himself, who has occasionally inhabited the fictional mind of whites. And even on his own reservation, some Spokane tribal members say Alexie misrepresents daily life. As for Kingsolver, she says she is bewildered by Alexie's potshots.
''I live in the Southwest, where many cultures come together,'' she says. ''It's my neighborhood. If anyone has ever picked up one of my books because they thought I was an Indian, I regret that. The big problem is he hasn't read my books.''
Alexie says he has read her work, likes much of it, but finds its depiction of Indians simplistic. His wrath for ''Indian poseurs,'' as he calls them, goes beyond writers. A few years ago, when drumming in the woods was all the rage, Alexie was often invited to speak to men's groups. He declined. He scorns ''this earth mother and shaman thing,'' as he calls it, ''because we don't live this way anymore.'' Whites, he says, should find their own creation myths and cultural ties from Europe. In the meantime, there are a few contemporary Indian stories to tell.
''Smoke Signals,'' directed by Chris Eyre, a Cheyenne-Arapaho film maker who lives in New York, calls to mind Spike Lee's breakthrough hit, ''She's Gotta Have It,'' or a Bernard Malamud short story. It presents a niche of American life never seen on film. Alexie's characters are not John Ford's Monument Valley warriors or Ted Turner's doomed, eco-perfect natives. They don't talk about politics or land disputes. In general, they are not victims. They tell jokes, fight, do stupid things and loving things, eat bad food. What's more, the cast is Indian. ''No Italians with long hair,'' Alexie says.
The two lead male characters, an odd couple in their early 20's, travel by bus from Idaho to Arizona in order to retrieve the ashes of one man's father. In one scene, a Western is playing on TV inside a trailer. ''The only thing more pathetic than an Indian on TV,'' says Thomas Builds-the-Fire, ''is an Indian watching an Indian on TV.''
The scenes of reservation life are without the usual brooding skies, stoic visages and poverty-beaten Indians. Thomas, much like Alexie himself when he grew up on the Spokane reservation, is a storyteller ignored by the rest of the tribe. He wears Government-issue glasses, eats commodity cheese and prattles on interminably about such things as his grandmother's frybread. ''It's a good day to be indigenous,'' says a deejay on the reservation's radio station. Cars drive backward, or don't start. Alcoholism, a scourge in almost all of Alexie's stories, proves fatal, and sobriety brings nobility. Basketball helps. So do books. People try to rescue themselves with narratives to live by. ''More than anything, he wanted a story to heal the wounds,'' Alexie wrote of Thomas. ''But he knew that his stories never healed anything.''
The town that produced Sherman Alexie is not on most maps. Wellpinit, Wash., is about 45 miles west of Spokane, and it seems hidden from the world, tucked into folds of basalt and pine forests. The Spokanes are one of the Salish-speaking tribes that lived on the Columbia Plateau, fishing for salmon, hunting elk and digging camas bulbs for sustenance. They dried fish and traded around the magnificent falls that tumbles through rock in what is now downtown Spokane.
Now the great fish are gone, and the Spokanes were long ago removed from the city that bears their name. In rounding up the Spokanes during a punitive mission to crush all the interior Northwest tribes in 1858, Col. George Wright was unusually cruel. When two Indian leaders came forth to discuss terms of surrender, Wright had them summarily hanged. Then he gathered up 800 of the Indian horses and had them shot. ''The horses screamed'' is a refrain heard throughout Alexie's first novel, ''Reservation Blues,'' which is about a tribal rock band that is trying to make music in the world beyond Indian Country. One of the characters in the book, a duplicitous New York record producer, is named George Wright.
I grew up in Spokane, in the north end of town on Indian Trail Road. We knew nothing of the people who had preceded us in roaming the pleasant site. Indians? Sure: the Spokane Indians were a pretty good Pacific Coast League baseball team. The reservation was not even a rumor. As Alexie wrote at the start of ''Reservation Blues,'' ''In the one hundred and eleven years since the creation of the Spokane Indian Reservation in 1881, not one person, Indian or otherwise, had ever arrived there by accident.''
The reservation today, which comprises 155,997 acres, is home to about half of the 2,200 members of the Spokane tribe. There are no traffic lights, no grand entrance signs. You could very likely nap in the middle of the main road for an hour before being awakened by a car. The only store to speak of, the Trading Post, is as Alexie has described it in his writing, the shelves half-bare, stocked with commodity cheese and pastries past their pull date.
The human attachments to the land are spare -- churches, a cemetery, a softball field, H.U.D. homes and older cabins. But from these bare bones Alexie has created his fictional world. In one story, a young Indian challenges a member of the tribal police to a basketball game. But there is snow on the ground. No problem. They get a jug of kerosene, burn the snow off the court. ''Yeah, we did that once,'' says Alexie. ''Most of that stuff I write about happened to me or somebody I knew.'' Lives are hurt by jealousy or alcohol, and restored by love or spirituality. More than Jesus, Humor Saves. But it has a bite. In ''Reservation Blues,'' two white groupies arrive from Seattle, ready to go native for the weekend. ''You have all the things we don't have,'' says one of the women. ''You live at peace with the earth. You are so wise.'' An Indian member of the band responds: ''You've never spent a few hours in the Powwow Tavern. I'll show you wise and peaceful.''
Such lines have not exactly endeared Alexie to many members of his tribe. A woman who runs a program at the reservation cultural center is dismissive. ''I don't have anything good to say about him, so I better not say anything,'' she says. ''It's like he has used the reservation for personal therapy, and in so doing, he's hurt a lot of people.''
Down the road, in the building that is home to the Spokane tribal campus of Salish-Kootenai College, the response is similar. Asked her thoughts about the most famous member of the tribe, Mikki Samuels, a college librarian, laughs in response. ''He's very controversial here,'' she says. ''What people on the reservation feel is that he's making fun of them. It's supposed to be fiction, but we all know who he's writing about. He has wounded a lot of people. And a lot of people feel he should try to write something positive.''
Alexie blames some of the animosity on the politics of Indian reservations, which are typically aggravated by family feuds and the kind of hothouse disputes that plague most small towns. Part of it, he admits, is his own fault. ''I was as mouthy and opinionated as a kid as I am now,'' he says.
When Alexie returns home, the reaction is mixed. Both his parents are alcoholics, one recovering, one not. His mother, Lillian, is a substance abuse counselor, drawing on her own struggles to help her neighbors. Sherman is the first member of his family to move away from the rez, as tribal members call it. For that act alone, he is sometimes snubbed as the big-shot city writer.
''My friends are happy to see me,'' he says. ''My enemies are not.'' As for role models, he says that Lester the drunk ''has a strange sort of wisdom'' and that his sober characters are his best ones.
In Seattle, where writers are well tended, he is a celebrity. At breakfast one morning in a hilltop cafe in Alexie's neighborhood, he gets both whispered recognition and face-to-face compliments. In ''Indian Killer,'' he makes fun of the city and its pretensions of tolerance, but he is embraced nonetheless. ''Liberals,'' he says. ''They love punishment.'' Alexie's ancestry is Spokane and Coeur d'Alene. He sometimes jokes that he has one-sixteenth British blood in him, which causes him to turn his pinky at a particular angle while he sips tea.
Born hydrocephalic, he was given last rites by a Catholic priest after his parents were told he would probably not survive brain surgery in his infancy. ''I had epileptic seizures until I was 7 years old,'' he wrote in ''One Little Indian Boy.'' ''I wet my bed until I was 17. I was a reservation television movie of the week.'' He says he started reading Superman comic books before he was out of diapers and then read all of the Wellpinit School Library by the time he was 12. The early part of college was spent in an alcoholic haze, a time when he was ''one of those Indians upholding our stereotype.''
He gave up liquor at 23 and has not had a drink since. While attending Washington State University, he met his mentor, a poet and English professor named Alex Kuo. Encouraged by Kuo, Alexie found a publisher, Hanging Loose Press in New York, which in 1992 brought out a collection of his poems, ''The Business of Fancydancing.'' When Alexie began to give readings, it was clear that he was born to the stage. He gets a half-dozen laughs just describing what commodity powered milk does once it gets into your system. Several years ago, he hooked up with a Colville Indian singer, Jim Boyd, and they put out a ''soundtrack'' to accompany the book ''Reservation Blues.'' (Boyd sings and plays guitar; Alexie sticks with words, doing a sort of voice-over.) Three more books of poetry followed and then ''The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven,'' the stories that introduced many of his characters from the Spokane reservation.
''I had just come back from the West Coast, where Sherman's poetry was everywhere, when his agent submitted the short story book,'' says Morgan Entrekin, the publisher of Atlantic Monthly Press, which has brought out Alexie's last three books of fiction. ''He was such a fresh and unusual voice. Very different from other Indian writers. He was a new generation. As he said to me, 'I'm not from the eagle-feather and corn-pollen school.'''
Though Alexie is extremely well read, the cultural influences he claims include ''The Brady Bunch,'' the country bluesman Hank Williams and the Blackfeet-Gros Ventre Indian writer James Welch. ''What floors me about Sherman is how he forces people to change the way they view Indians,'' says Scott Rosenfelt, a founder of the Seattle film company Shadow Catcher, producer of ''Smoke Signals'' and ''Indian Killer.'' ''They are not loincloth Indians and they are not political. They are Indians unlike anything we are used to seeing or reading about.''
Reviews of the first novel were uniformly positive, glowing in some cases. The book had more grit than his earlier stories. And then, in ''Indian Killer,'' the story of a serial killer in modern Seattle, he challenged his readers even more, angering some of them, particularly in the West. The Seattle Times called the novel ''a dark, yet simplistic rendering of some of the most profoundly disturbing aspects of American society.'' The Rocky Mountain News liked some of ''Indian Killer,'' but said that Alexie's ''general depiction of most whites in this book is revolting -- crude, bigoted, pompous, cowardly caricatures.''
Still, just as ''Indian Killer'' was published, Granta magazine named Alexie one of the 20 best American novelists under 40. Not unlike Richard Wright's ''Native Son,'' the book is about people lost in their own land -- in this case, confused urban Indians and whites who expropriate native culture. At one point, a literary agent says to a white writer, who has just a smidgen of Indian blood: ''Indians are big right now. Publishers are looking for that Shaman thing, you know. The New Age stuff, after-death experiences, the healing arts, talking animals, sacred vortexes, that kind of thing.''
Alexie says he wanted people to be angry after reading ''Indian Killer,'' and he was surprised that even more reviewers were not upset. ''I'm ready for a good fight,'' he says. ''I'm not in this to make people feel comfortable.''
Alexie promises that the movie version of ''Indian Killer'' will push plenty of buttons. But as he speaks, he slips in jokes so often, and comes across as so likable, that it's hard to take him seriously when he says he is ''one ticked-off Indian.'' Much as he tires of people viewing him as a spokesman for Indians, he has settled into the role. ''I'm sober. I'm married to an Indian woman. I have a stable family life. I'm polite. I've become a good role model.''
He says all this with a twinge of regret, as if he misses the days when he used to torch a basketball court to melt off the snow. A poet who happens to be Indian, a novelist, a film maker, a stand-up comedian and a father can only do so much. ''You look at life expectancy for Indians,'' he says. ''We don't live very long.''
Timothy Egan is the Seattle bureau chief of The New York Times.
New York Times Book Review
"The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven"
by Sherman Alexie
From The New York Times, 17-Oct-1993; reviewed by Reynolds Price
SHERMAN ALEXIE was born in 1966. Victor, the central character and sometime narrator of at least half of these 22 short stories, is the same age. Like Mr. Alexie, Victor is a member of the Spokane Indian tribe and continues to live in the state of Washington. But where Victor has no diversions more effective than alcohol from the bleakness of his reservation life, Sherman Alexie has a striking lyric power to lament and praise that same crucial strain of modern American life -- the oldest and most unendingly punished strain, the Native American, as it's been transformed for many Indians through a long five centuries of brutal reduction to powerlessness and its lethal companions: alcoholism, malnutrition and suicidal self-loathing. There are three stories here that could stand in any collection of excellence -- "The Trial of Thomas Builds-the-Fire," "Jesus Christ's Half-Brother Is Alive and Well on the Spokane Indian Reservation" and "Witnesses, Secret and Not."
Young as he is, though, Mr. Alexie has employed his gift briskly. The present volume is his first full-length work of fiction, but last year he published "The Business of Fancydancing," a widely praised collection of poems and sketches, and there are earlier collections of poetry, "Old Shirts & New Skins," "I Would Steal Horses" and "First Indian on the Moon." Though the themes, the tones of voice and the names of characters are often identical in the two most recent volumes, "The Business of Fancydancing" consists mostly of verse -- laconic and grim but often humorous free-verse responses to the same world that underlies all Mr. Alexie's work.
"The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven" is entirely in prose, its tales ranging in length from fewer than five pages to more than 10. Each part is named promisingly -- the title piece is a good example -- yet a majority of the pieces quickly dispense with the common reader's expectations of short narrative. There is very little plot in any of them -- plot in the sense of consecutive action with emotional outcome. Little human conflict is witnessed in present time; almost no attention is paid to whatever visible world surrounds the vocal line of narration, though there are frequent generic references to HUD housing, crowded saloons and powwows enriched by the omnipresent Indian fry bread. With those sparse hints, the reader is expected to perform a number of jobs that are generally assumed by the writer. Anyone impelled to enter Mr. Alexie's world must conspire with the sound of his fictional voices to create a new world, to people it and then to feel along with a set of characters about whom we're told little more than their names and a few slender facts about their age and health.
Knowledge of the immensely imposing and varied body of recent fiction by American Indians -- from N. Scott Momaday and James Welch to Leslie Marmon Silko -- will suggest that there's nothing especially typical of Native Americans in Mr. Alexie's limited angle of vision and in the kinds of dense filters he interposes between the reader and the world implied. In a terse three sentences in his beautiful closing story, however, the narrator seems to claim otherwise. He says: "One Indian doesn't tell another what to do. We just watch things happen and then make comments. It's all about reaction as opposed to action."
However unpromising a creed that would seem to be for a fiction writer who hopes to be read by a culturally assorted audience, its offhand claim defines the motive force of these pieces. The great surprise is that given such narrow bounds, Mr. Alexie's strength proves sufficient to compel clear attention through sizable lengths of first-person voice (the hardest voice to make compelling, given all our dread of the first-person bore; and most of Mr. Alexie's voices resemble one another closely). The skills by which he lures us on through the quickly familiar atmosphere are a stark lucidity of purpose and an extreme simplicity of cast and action (there are seldom more than two characters present in any scene). Above all, he lures us with a live and unremitting lyric energy in the fast-moving, occasionally surreal and surprisingly comic language of his progress.
PASSAGES as lively as the following are not infrequent, and go a good way toward lifting the stingy minimalist gloom that might otherwise sink more of these sketches than the two or three that actually founder: "In the outside world, a person can be a hero one second and a nobody the next. Think about it. Do white people remember the names of those guys who dove into that icy river to rescue passengers from that plane wreck a few years back? Hell, white people don't even remember the names of dogs who save entire families from burning up in house fires by barking."
However exhilarating such vitality proves to be throughout the volume, a sympathetic reader may finally dwell on a serious question -- and it's a question that arises in the presence of any writer who not only is very young but who is also publishing rapidly. Has Sherman Alexie moved too fast for his present strength? A youthful prodigy is far scarcer in narrative writing than in any other art. There have been great poems from teen-agers, great pieces of music and admirable paintings; but there's no sizable body of impressive fiction by any writer much under 30. The power to dredge up useful narrative lumber from the packed unconscious mostly requires long years of mute waiting while the mind flows over and reshapes its memories into public objects of arresting interest and wide utility.
Despite his extraordinary powers, in the quick succession of two books in two years Sherman Alexie has plumbed a number of obsessive themes and relationships as deeply as they permit; and moments of gray, unrevealing monotony are too common. Though no one can tell a writer -- least of all a young one -- where to look and how to see, the reader who admires Mr. Alexie's plentiful moments of startling freshness and his risky dives into unmapped waters can wish for him now that he discovers a new and merciful rhythm that will let him find new eyes, new sights and patterns in a wider world, and a battery of keener voices for launching his urgent knowledge toward us.
Sherman Alexie: My name is Sherman Alexie and I’m the bantamweight champion of the world. No, I’m a writer, poet, short story writer, novelist, screenwriter.
Question: How has it felt becoming a literary community “insider”?
Sherman Alexie: You young bastard, I’m doing okay. It is a strange dilemma because in some sense, you know, I was very native, very native identified, and I still am, but that’s almost become secondary. I’ve sort of joined the tribe of highly established literary writers. So, you know, I’m with the Jonathan Franzens of the world. You know, I know him a little bit, but that’s sort of my peer group now, rather than just sort of, you know, Indian world, literary world, I’m now in, you know, this sort of make-believe world of writers who supposedly hang out a lot, although none of us ever do. So I’m in a faux community of writers, highly successful, literary writers now.
Question: Has success changed your work?
Sherman Alexie: Oh, it’s all, I mean, I haven’t changed anything I’ve written based on all that stuff. So the perceptions of me may have changed, or my career, but I’m still writing the same stuff, it’s still pretty much about Spokane Indian males, you know, stumbling through life. So I think it’s because of the combination of skills I have, you know, I work in multi-genres, you know, I do stand-up comedy, I help make movies, I think all of that has contributed to it. I’m not just a novelist or not just a short story writer. So I think in this highly technological world with many diverse and diffuse influences, I think I’m able to hit a lot of aces.
Question: When you’re a writer, is doing anything besides writing selling out?
Sherman Alexie: Nobody who’s ever been poor would ever use the phrase “selling out.” You know, my influences in the multi-genre artists come from my Indian writing ancestors, the previous generation. When you’re talking James Welch, Simon Ortiz, Scott Momaday, Joy Harjo, Leslie Silko, Linda Hogan, Adrian C. Louis, all of these writers were multi-genre. They all wrote poetry and novels and short stories and non-fiction and dabbled in songwriting and filmmaking and documentary making. So my original influences were Native American, multi-genre artists.
Now, these days, the younger Native writers are not multi-genre, so it’s very interesting. I’m not sure what’s happening, why that has changed, but I grew up as a kid writer. Nobody ever told me I was supposed to be one thing, so just because I happened to become successful in a number of those genres, it wasn’t because I was pursuing them economically, it was because I saw the artistic possibilities in all of it. And I was taught those when I was a, you know, 19-year-old undergraduate.
Question: Why haven’t you joined academia?
Sherman Alexie: Yeah, I think I’m the least educated Indian writer out there. I’ve taught at the University of Washington, so, but I’m not a good teacher, so I think that probably disqualifies me. Yeah, I’m not in academia at all, in terms of a full-time career. I think it’s interesting, because I think, when you look at Native American literature, you’re going to find that it doesn’t really reflect the diversity of the ways in which the writers actually lived their lives. Nobody’s ever written, for instance, an academic farce, a Native American teacher at college farce, which is a time-honored and wonderful genre. You know, David Lodge made a whole career out of it, writing academic farces and, you know, every writer you can name has written it, but we haven’t done it. You know, where’s that novel about that Indian architect or that Indian lawyer. There’s a distinct lack of white-collar Native American literature, despite the fact that most of its most visible practitioners are white-collar themselves. So I think there’s an effort, somewhat of an insecurity to prove your Indian-ness by focusing almost entirely on a reservation-based identity.
Question: What’s the connection between your writing and your stand-up comedy?
Sherman Alexie: Well, I think it’s old-fashioned actually. You know, I think people think it’s something new, but the idea of being a storyteller, you know, for most of our existence was not related to books, it was about the ability to stand up in front of the fire and, you know, earn your supper. So I think it’s just something old and inspired in me, but I never really was the funny guy growing up. If you’d ask my siblings, they’d tell you I was the depressed guy in the basement, but they’re the funny ones. But it just, I got on stage and started talking and people laughed. At the beginning, I didn’t even necessarily know what was happening, but as the years have gone on, I realized that humor is pretty amazing in its ability to transcend differences, politically, ethnically, racially, geographically, economically. There’s something about it that really opens people up spiritually, I think, and they listen. They pay attention. And it’s also a great way to offend people.
I don’t know, we’ve all been to literary readings, you know, where we got theater, but so bored by the person up in front of us reading their work so dispassionately that it nearly turns us off their books. You know, there are writers who I’ve heard do their work that I can only hear their voice when I’m reading their books and it’s so disinterested in their own stuff and I just never wanted to do that. I wanted to make the mistake the other way, you know, I’m pleased when somebody’s offended, you know, by my large stage presence, because there’s still people who show up who get offended. I get up there and give a show and I’m improvising and, you know, talking about current events and what happened yesterday or what happened an hour ago, what happened five minutes before I walked into the place, you know, and giving people a glimpse of how my, you know, crazy mind works. And then they’ll come up after me and say, “Well, I’m really disappointed you didn’t read the story,” and you look at them and think, “Well, you can read the story, you know, what happened tonight will only happen once! You know, you were here for a one-time thing!” So I guess people are trapped in their perception of what a literary artist is supposed to be.
Question: Do you find narrative or poetry harder?
Sherman Alexie: You know, I write poems naturally. I’m writing them all the time. I think it’s more of a reflex talent than fiction is for me. Seems like I have to work harder to write fiction. That said, poems are much more demanding, you have fewer words, you can make fewer mistakes. You know, if you write a ten-line poem, you really can’t make any mistakes. If you do, the poem is terrible. But when you write a novel, you have all that space to mess up in and people are more forgiving. So I think poetry audiences are far more demanding than fiction audiences are.
Question: What do you consider your best work?
Sherman Alexie: Well, you know, writers generally come in two groups, those who love what they do and those who can’t stand what they do. I’m in the second group. I have a really difficult time looking back. Yeah, so I figure out of the thousands of pages I’ve published, there’s probably about 100 great pages. I think I worked on probably about a 2 percent greatness rate. So there’s probably 10 poems, 2 stories that are great and the rest of it is from anywhere from pretty good to, you know, total crap.
Question: Does the print book have a future?
Sherman Alexie: You know, the book is not played out. The idea of what a book can be is not played out in its form as it is, with paper and covers. And there are things that can be that digital will never touch, and that’s one of the things I wanted to do with this, and comparing it to a cassette tape, the old-fashioned way of making a mix tape, which, you know, I love burning CD’s, too, but there is something far more passionate and hands-on and hard work about making a mix tape on a cassette. It’s too easy to revise with a CD. And today’s technology makes it too easy to change immediately. You can cover your mistakes quicker. I think it allows you to have the sheen of perfection around yourself and with an old-fashioned book or an old-fashioned cassette tape, you can actually see all the flaws and imperfections and the bad choices. And I think there’s something we lose with technology when you talk about bad choices.
Question: Why do you consider e-books elitist?
Sherman Alexie: Well, they cost $300, number one. I don’t think anything that costs $300 can be called egalitarian. You know, how much of the world can afford a $300 reading device? 1 percent of 1 percent of 1 percent, it automatically qualifies for, you know, economically elite status.
But what’s really going on here, the reading public doesn’t really know about, and all they’re concerned about and all they’re defending is their reading convenience, which I completely understand. Whether it’s because of physical disabilities or because of personal preference, or just the newness of it, why they love a digital book. But they don’t understand the economic, corporate pressures going on in the publishing world. And what’s going to happen, and this is going to happen on the Internet, too. We like to pretend that the Internet is free, you know, we like to pretend it’s an open source culture, but as culture changes, as old corporate models of distributing information are changing, you know, I don’t know why people assume that corporations aren’t going to take over this medium as well, because they can.
And so what’s happening in the book world, the digital books, is that these e-book companies, you know, Amazon, Barnes & Noble, others that are rising, they just don’t seek to publish books, they’re going to end up seeking the books to be chosen to be published. So this economic model, the way it’s set up now, is going to favor a certain kind of book and publishers and being economically motivated companies are only going to be publishing those kinds of books. And the divide between pop culture, pop writing, and literary writing is just going to increase and increase and increase and it’s going to make it harder and harder and harder for first-time writers to get published in any form whatsoever where they’ll get attention.
Question: Does the Web help or hurt the connection between artist and audience?
Sherman Alexie: Who can find you? Who’s going to find anybody? Nobody’s really risen out of the Internet to become a major voice. They always end up getting a book published and then the book makes them a major voice, but nobody has. I mean, I’m trying to think, you know, I’m not Internet averse at all, I’m doing this. I mean, I love the Internet. But the fact is, is that it’s a giant, giant, unfiltered library which has its strengths and beauty, but it’s impossible to find people.
And, you know, what we end up doing anyway is I go to about five sites. You know, and I think most people probably do the same thing, you create this little small town inside the Internet and we end up in all these little, tiny separate communities. Joan Jett, an interview with Joan Jett, she said about the music industry, she said the thing that’s missing now is anticipation. She said that nobody gets in a big line outside of Tower Records any more waiting for that new Stones album to drop. And nobody stands in line outside a record store waiting to buy the tickets for The Who concert. There’s a real lack of community, you know, in the Internet experience when it comes to art. And you can’t tell me and it’s not true, that communicating strictly through the Internet forms community in the way that being together does. You’re missing all but one sense. You don’t smell people, you don’t really hear them, you don’t see them, and we’re animals, we’re creatures of senses, and the Internet deprives you of many of those.
And so I know there’s new art coming based on this technology and some if it’s happening and it’s exciting and interesting, but there’s nothing wrong with the old art. And I always worry and you see it with certain Internet folks, the way in which they’re completely willing to jettison their past in the pursuit of something new, and that’s what I’m worried about.
Question: What does it mean to be a “method author”?
Sherman Alexie: Well, in order to write about the emotional state of a character, I have to get as close as possible to being in that emotional state. So I have to get that sad, I have to get that happy, that crazed, that bizarre, that obsessed. You know, whatever one of my characters are going through, I have to find my way into it. You know, it’s just the way I do it.
Question: Can you give an example from your latest book?
Sherman Alexie: Well, there’s a story in this book [“War Dances”] called the “Ballad of Paul Nonetheless,” where he becomes so obsessed with pop music and so obsessed with his iPod, that he, you know, every thought he has becomes directly related to a song. So I went that far into it. I tried to talk only in song lyrics. You know, whenever anybody was talking to me, I drove my friends and family mad, because whenever they would talk to me, you know, I would say, “Well, that reminds me of this, you know, Rolling Stones song,” or whenever anybody said something accidentally that was a lyric or a title of a song, I would then sing the song. So it was crazy. But it got me seeing the way it was completely alienating my friends and family, really got me to a place where I could write that story about this really genial guy who’s actually very much an anti-hero.
Question: How did you know you had a drinking problem?
Sherman Alexie: Oh, a case of beer a day. You know, I could drink a fifth of tequila a day. You know, it becomes a drinking problem when it affects your relationships with people, when it affects your job or your school, your grade point average. You know, affects your, it’s a drinking problem when you’re sitting on your couch at home drinking the case of beer all by yourself, and then you pass out and grab the fifth of tequila when you wake up. So pretty obvious what my problem was.
Question: Does alcohol primarily help or hurt writers?
Sherman Alexie: Well, I wrote “The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven” and “The Business of Fancy Dancing” while drunk and drinking. So there’s certainly a lot to be said for my desperate years, my alcoholic years, my active alcoholic years is being the source of some pretty good work, for being the source of the two books that established and made my career. But the thing is, it’s unsustainable. You know, if you are using substances to fuel your creativity, you’re going to have a very, very short artistic life. You’re going to be a sprinter and by and large, I wanted to become a marathon runner. And I can only run the marathon if I’m sober.
You kill your brain. You kill your brain. You know, please try to find me, the successful drug user. You know, try to find me, the high-functioning alcoholic, you know, career person, and you could probably find in their work when they were drinking, when they weren’t. I bet you could look at the downfall of some amazing writers who wrote one or two great books and then just fell apart, I’m pretty sure that’s related to alcohol consumption. So, it’s unsustainable, you know, it’s sort of like the environment, you can only pour so much pollutants into it before the temperature changes dramatically. So I think drug and alcohol abuse is like the greenhouse affect for writers.
Question: As a Native American writer, do you feel special pressure to address alcoholism?
Sherman Alexie: Well, I mean, I’m an alcoholic, that’s what, you know, my family is filled with alcoholics. My tribe is filled with alcoholics. The whole race is filled with alcoholics. For those Indians who try to pretend it’s a stereotype, they’re in deep, deep denial. It’s an every day part of my life and as a writer, I use that to write about it. You know, partly for fictional purposes, and narrative purposes, but partly with the social hope that by writing about it, maybe it’ll help people get sober, and it has. I’ve heard from them. You know, the social function of art is very important to me. It’s not just for art’s sake. I have very specific ideas in mind about what it can do. I’ve seen it happen. So it is writing about alcohol that helps me stay sober. And I think reading about alcoholism helps other people stay sober.
Question: Have your kids affected your writing?
Sherman Alexie: I try to meet deadlines. I have, you know, more dependents, so it’s a very, very basic triangle needs. That bottom, you know, part of the triangle. But, well, they’re always surprising me. The kids are always surprising me with their insights into the world and of course because they’re my children, I pay more attention to what they’re saying than pretty much everybody else on the planet. I care more what my kids say on a daily basis than, you know, the smartest people on the planet. You know? And so I listen and their insights are really surprising and the way in which how unfiltered they are and their obsessions and passions, they don’t apologize for any of that. So I learn a lot from them, you know, it’s also aggravating and irritating and exhausting, the sacrifices you make and, you know, sometimes it feels like my whole life is a to-do list. But, you know, I think their passion for life really has re-inspired me.
Question: Do you want your children to read your work?
Sherman Alexie: No. I don’t, I mean, they’re autonomous. I certainly, if they want to read my stuff and talk about it later, that’ll be great. But until then, it was so funny though, I was profiled on the Lehrer News Hour recently and I was watching the rough cut of it and my son came down, my eight year old, and he was watching it on the TV with me and it was a five-minute piece about poetry and I read a couple poems and I read one very emotional one about my father’s death. And it was over and my son looked at me, he’s eight years old, he looked at me and he goes, “Dad, you’re pretty good!” So that was a great moment.
Question: Whom would you most like to meet?
Sherman Alexie: It’s funny, this popped into my head, so I’ll go with it, Shoeless Joe Jackson, who was banned from baseball in 1919 for allegedly fixing the World Series. Country boy, ended up being a great baseball player, one of the greatest of all time, I’d like to talk to him about that World Series, about the mysteries of human nature. Because, you know, you’re looking at the stats, I’m pretty sure he didn’t participate in the fix, but he knew about it, so I’d like to have a discussion of morality with Shoeless Joe Jackson.
Question: Who are your literary heroes?
Sherman Alexie: Well, there are just certain poems and novels and stories that resonate forever and ever. You know, poems I always return to, Emily Dickinson: “Because I could not stop for Death, that kindly stopped for me.” You know, Theodore Roethke: “I know a woman,” you know, “I knew a woman, lovely in her bones, when small birds sighed, she would sigh back at them.” James Wright: “Suddenly I realized that if I stepped outside my body, I would break into blossom.” And then, you know, the end of “Grapes of Wrath,” when Rose of Sharon breastfeeds, you know, her child has died, but she breastfeeds the starving man, that moment? So it’s always individual works. Even in life, I don’t have heroes. I believe in heroic ideas, because the creators of all those ideas are very human. And if you make heroes out of people, you will invariably be disappointed.
Question: Was there a particular work that moved you as a child?
Sherman Alexie: Oh, Ezra Jack Keats, “A Snowy Day,” the book. You know, the idea of multicultural literature is very new and so as a little Indian boy growing up on the reservation, there was nobody like me in the books, so you always had to extrapolate. But when I picked up A Snowy Day with that inner-city black kid, that child, walking through the, you know, snow covered, pretty quiet and lonely city, oh, I mean, when he was making snow angels and, you know, when he was getting in snowball fights and when he got home to his mother and it was cold and she put him in a hot bathtub and put him to sleep, the loneliness and the love in that book, oh, just gorgeous. So that picture resonates with me still.