Book review: Blasphemy by Sherman Alexie

Adam Beach, left, and Evan Adams played Native Americans in 1998's Smoke Signals, based on a story by Alexie. Picture: Kobal
Adam Beach, left, and Evan Adams played Native Americans in 1998's Smoke Signals, based on a story by Alexie. Picture: Kobal
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IN HIS 1936 essay “The Storyteller”, Walter Benjamin drew a sharp distinction between prose fiction and storytelling.

Blasphemy by Sherman Alexie

Atlantic, 480pp, £14.99

The essential quality of storytelling, he wrote, is lived experience: “Every story contains, openly or covertly, something useful … a moral; some practical advice; a proverb or maxim. In every case the storyteller has counsel for his readers. But if today ‘having counsel’ has an old-fashioned ring, this is because the communicability of experience is decreasing… We have no counsel either for ourselves or for others.”

I don’t know what he would have made of Sherman Alexie, the Seattle-based winner of many of the US National Book Award and several other literary prizes as well as one of Granta’s 20 Best American novelists under the age of 40. For all those literary awards for his prose fiction, his work has always drawn heavily on his own Native American storytelling culture.

The stories in Blasphemy, his collection of new and selected work, begin and nearly always end by reaffirming the brokenness, the dissonance and alienation of contemporary Native American life, usually delivered in withering punchlines. “When a reservation-raised Native American dies of alcoholism,” he writes, “it should be considered death by natural causes.”

On the other hand, to understand Sherman Alexie as he often presents himself – as a clown, a cynic, a glib comedian, a blasphemer – is to miss the undercurrent of deep longing for the gravitas and wisdom, of the storyteller. Although Alexie, who now lives in Seattle, was not raised speaking a tribal language, and the loss of that language and the oral teachings associated with it comes up occasionally in his work, he peoples his fiction with characters who refuse to disguise or compromise their “Indianness,” even if they can’t quite define what it means. In what is perhaps his best-known story, “This Is What It Means to Say Phoenix, Arizona” (which was adapted for the film Smoke Signals), the young protagonist seeks out a former friend and eccentric outcast, Thomas Builds-the-Fire, for help transporting his estranged father’s ashes back to his reservation. Thomas talks to himself, we’re told, because even though he clearly has prophetic powers, he’s “a storyteller that nobody wanted to listen to”. But the protagonist knows enough to turn to him when he feels “a sudden need for tradition,” and Thomas provides him with a certain kind of offhand, cryptic spiritual guidance as they navigate the father’s remains home, finally promising that he will take half the ashes and pour them into Spokane Falls: “Your father will rise like a salmon,” he says, “leap over the bridge … and find his way home.”

Alexie’s best stories bring the two sides of this literary persona – the embittered critic and the yearning dreamer – together in ways that are moving and extremely funny. “War Dances,” a loose mosaic of lists, quizzes, interviews and poetry, evokes an entire spectrum of emotion surrounding the death of the narrator’s father from alcoholism and diabetes: from rage to survivor’s guilt to pure uninhibited grief to the blackest of black humour. (“If God really loved Indians,” the father says, “he would have made us white people.”) “The Toughest Indian in the World” arises out of an unexpected bond between a reporter and a prizefighter he picks up hitchhiking – in which the reporter’s longing for an “authentic” Indian role model turns into an erotic encounter, which in turn becomes a kind of initiation:

“I crawled naked into bed. I wondered if I was a warrior in this life and if I had been a warrior in a previous life… The next morning, before sunrise … I stepped onto the pavement, still warm from the previous day’s sun. I started walking. In bare feet, I travelled upriver toward the place where I was born and will someday die.”

What becomes clear, however, as the reader travels farther and farther upstream in this voluminous collection, is that Alexie’s gifts have hardened and become reflexive over time. Alexie began writing in an era dominated by the dirty realists – the unholy trinity of Raymond Carver, Tobias Wolff and Richard Ford – and his work shares with theirs a certain bluntness and rawness, an aversion to sensory description, nuance or context, and an overriding interest in (some might say obsession with) male solitude as a fount of life lessons.

There’s a tendency in Alexie’s work to condense experience and biography into two- or three-sentence packages, and the result is that even stories with very different settings or plots tend to blur together: We feel constantly rushed from scene to scene by a writer who’s a little impatient with the texture of language and wants to get right to the point:

“My Indian daddy, Marvin, died of stomach cancer when I was a baby. I never knew him, but I spent half of every summer on the Spokane Reservation with his mother and father, my grandparents. My mother wanted me to keep in touch with my tribal heritage, but mostly, I read spy novels to my grandfather and shopped garage sales and secondhand stores with my grandmother. I suppose, for many Indians, garage sales and trashy novels are highly traditional and sacred… All told, I loved to visit but loved my home much more.”

The key phrase here, and throughout, is “All told” – as in, “I’m done with this part, let’s move on.” The effect of all this workmanlike prose is a desire to skim for the funny parts, which show up with great regularity, two or three to a page, like jokes in a sitcom script.

The most disheartening aspect of this collection is the fact that, over 20 years, the jokes themselves haven’t changed. Alexie’s narrators and protagonists still see themselves as solitary outcasts on the margins of reservation life, and it shows.

We hear a great deal about vodka, meth, commodity canned beef and horn-rimmed government glasses, but nothing about the intricacies of tribal politics, struggles over natural resources or efforts to preserve indigenous cultural life. Of course, a fiction writer follows the dictates of his own imagination, not any political or cultural agenda, but that’s precisely the point: Alexie’s world is a starkly limited one, and his characters’ vision of Native America, despite their sometimes crippling nostalgia, is as self-consciously impoverished as it has ever been. What began as blasphemy could now just as easily be described as a kind of arrested development.

Perhaps, willingly or not, that is the lesson he’s trying to teach.