By Sherman Alexie
Grove Atlantic, 272 pp., $24
Sherman Alexie writes with a savage wit, an eye that focuses on both the absurd and the familiar, and speaks with a voice that is self-defacing, bitter and totally unique. In Ten Little Indians, he presents us with nine stories that deal with Indians (Alexie's preferred term) living in the modern world: a place where the past is either forgotten or re-written, where family is regarded as a possession or a burden, where class distinction flavors everything, and where love is both challenging and rewarding.
Throughout this collection, Alexie displays his talents as a writer coming into his full strength as a craftsman. Each story involves people in a moment of revelation, that single moment in time where the wrong word or a cross look can destroy everything at stake. Many of the characters are at a literal crossroads of life, dealing with real issues--be it growing older, grieving the loss of a loved one, or simply reflecting on the old ways and their place in today's transient landscape.
Several stories in the collection stand out as amazing pieces of writing. The first story, "The Search Engine," deals with a Spokane Indian student named Corliss, as she tries to locate elusive author Harlan Atwater. Corliss discovers Atwater's collection of poetry at the library and begins a search that in the end will reveal more about herself than it does of the shy writer. Alexie's prose snaps and crackles as he throws in judgments of ignorant white people, cliched Indians and human behavior in general. Even the president feels the sting of Alexie's barbed humor:
"The world is a competitive place and a poor Indian girl needs all the advantages that she can get. So if George W. Bush, a man who possessed no remarkable distinctions other than being the son of a former U.S. President, can also become President, then Corliss figured she could certainly benefit from positive ethnic stereotypes and not feel any guilt about it. For five centuries Indians were slaughtered only because they were Indians, so if Corliss received a free coffee now again from the local free-range lesbian Indiophile, then who could possibly find the wrong in that?"
Somewhere Michael Moore is laughing.
Another story that plays with the reader's expectations is "What You Pawn I Will Redeem." The story deals with a homeless Indian who discovers his grandmother's powwow dance regalia in a pawnshop window. The pawnshop owner offers to sell the regalia back to the narrator if he can obtain $999 by noon the next day. The narrator and his friends, both fellow Indians, set off on a quest to raise the money, but of course they eventually spend any and all profits. Along the way the nameless narrator continues to meet a dizzying array of individuals all with their own story to tell, ranging from a song-singing Aluet to a sympathetic Korean shopkeeper. Throughout the collection we are treated to story after story that aims for the heart and often ends up tickling our collective funnybones.
One of the most interesting elements of Alexie's writing is his humor. Varying from an endless run of word riffs, to an insightful examination of culture and ritual, Alexie spares no one from his acerbic quips. In one story a character notes the Indian sense of humor, especially in pragmatic times:
"The two funniest tribes I've ever been around are Indians and Jews, so I guess that says something about the inherent humor of genocide."
In fact, throughout the stories, many characters end up laughing, either at their failures, the sorry state of things, or simply out of an inherent need to continue on, surviving the many contradictions of being an outsider--outcast by other outcasts.
This book is an exploding cigar, a carnation that squirts water, a sad-looking clown with hope in his eyes.
Sherman Alexie will be reading from Ten Little Indians on Tuesday, June 24, at 7 p.m. at the Regulator Bookshop in Durham. Call 286-2700 for information.