In works like The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven and Reservation Blues, National Book Award-winning author Sherman Alexie wrote stories from the point-of-view of characters who had never left an American Indian reservation. The results were unforgettably vivid, evoking tense, alienated yearnings from individuals who were simultaneously tangential to life on the reservation, as well as inextricably and tragically tied to it. In his latest collection, War Dances, Alexie has made a subtle, yet undeniable shift in his work: Rather than setting his stories squarely in the middle of the reservation, Alexie's characters have moved away, leaving behind life on the rez, at least in theory. The legacy of living as an American Indian has always figured in Alexie's work, but here it only figures obliquely.
Though many of the characters in these stories are American Indian (and some are not, or at least not identified as such), they are, more to the point, staunchly urbane Americans. They live and work in mainstream, middle class neighborhoods where their complexions are no more of note than that of the Asian, African or Middle Eastern Americans who might live on the same street, in the same city, miles and miles away from the rez.
In a New York Times interview several months ago, Alexie said: "I felt so conflicted about having fled the rez as a kid that I created a whole literary career that left me there." With this collection Alexie has done an about face, paving a literary path away from the reservation. The result is stunning, and haunting. Alexie and his characters may have fled the reservation, but it still looms largely, forcing them to acknowledge its imprint upon their lives.
In the title story, a Seattle father of two suddenly finds he is unable to hear out of his right ear. It's a symptom, he fears, that is somehow related to hydrocephalus (water on the brain), a disease he suffered from as a child. The experience compels him to reflect on his father's last days. In alternating sections, the narrator waits nervously for impending news about his brain and recounts an experience of walking through a hospital's corridors, after one of his father's surgeries, on the lookout for a fellow American Indian who might lend him a blanket. The narrator's father had just had both his feet amputated and was cold in his recovery room bed. An interaction with a harried nurse results in nothing more than a glorified sheet, after which the narrator roams the hallways. He spots an American Indian, exchanges a few pleasantries, then sheepishly asks if he might have a blanket:
"So you want to borrow a blanket from us?"
"Because you thought some Indians would just happen to have some extra blankets lying around?"
"That's fucking ridiculous."
"And it's racist."
"You're stereotyping your own damn people."
"But damn if we don't have a room full of Pendleton blankets. New ones..."
In another story, a film editor working away in his home office fatally injures a young black teenager who has broken into his home. The editor isn't charged with any crime—it was self-defense. When the teenager's mother pronounces that her son was "just another black boy killed by a white man," the narrator points out, via live coverage, that he is no white man. Indeed, he is "an enrolled member of the Spokane Tribe of Indians." After making the comment, the film editor reflects that "it didn't take clever editing to make me look evil; I had accomplished this in one take, live and uncut." In both cases, the narrators struggle to live unburdened by race, but they are continually compelled to reconcile with it.
There is much one could say about this brief but oddly expansive collection of short stories, about the range of concerns Alexie has seamlessly woven throughout. There is a sense, as there has been in his earlier works, that Alexie gives memoir the freedom of fiction. In addition to being a member of the Spokane Tribe of Indians, Alexie is, like his narrators, a Seattle father of two, a film editor and a former childhood sufferer of hydrocephalus. There is also a profound meditation on the life of the nomad in this collection, which is not unfitting for a collection that meanders away from the central location of Alexie's previous works. In the story "The Ballad of Paul Nonetheless," Paul wanders the Chicago O'Hare airport, following a woman in red Pumas, all the while musing on the collective consciousness of pop music. Throughout, Alexie's prose has an accessible ease that belies the slippery nature of his work; as a reader, you're never quite sure if you ought to laugh or cry.
Of course, it's not all perfect: The poems interspersed between the stories alternately hit a single, perfect and poignant note, as in "Ode to Pay Phones," and then sometimes feel like superfluous fillers, as in "On Airplanes."
Nevertheless, Alexie, one of the most prolific writers working right now, has undertaken new, yet not wholly disconnected themes, in this new collection. Even those who miss the intensity of the narration from the rez will find themselves turning pages as fast as they can.