The International Writers Magazine: Review
Little Indians, by Sherman Alexie
Here is what any decent, self-respecting critic should do whenever
he comes upon the work of someone he knows- be up front about
it. Such is the case with Sherman Alexies latest book, Ten
said, I was never a bosom buddy of Alexies, but I did meet
him several times in Minneapolis, when he was in town for several
events sponsored by the reprehensible (or perhaps abominable,
evil, or dread?) literary organization The Loft.
And, in that handful
of meetings I actually spent two times in extended conversations of
twenty or more minutes with the man, and found him to be witty, intelligent,
and charming. Furthermore, his film Smoke Signals was a winner,
and his novel Indian Killer was better than I expected. In short,
he was a PC Elitist who wasnt the total arts-hating, self-centered
jackass that most of them are, and a really nice guy, as well as very
funny. I really wanted his latest book to be good, and also to like
it, because I liked the man. Alas, I owe a greater duty to you, the
reader, than I do to a brief acquaintance, and have to report that the
book, as a whole, is not good.
It consists of nine stories, the first six of which are really bad,
and tales seven thru nine grading out as seven being outstanding, one
of the best published short stories of the last decade or two, number
eight being very good, and the last one being quite good. This schism,
between absolute crap, and near- if not actual- greatness is a quality
that dogs much of Alexies work.
The man is a year younger than me (hes thirty-nine), but has successfully
parlayed his connections with such orgs as The Loft, his intermittent
talent, and his status as a Native American into sixteen published books,
as of this date. I do not begrudge him this, yet I wish far more effort
was placed on his writing, so that he could score at least a seven or
eight of nine successful tales, and less on playing the game.
My guess is that Alexie is a gambling artist - someone who lets raw
talent, alone, do his work, rather than really ever get serious, and
disciplined, because his bad stories are not just horrible, but at the
level of a talentless high school student that takes up creative
writing for no reason other than to kill time.
The first story, The Search Engine, is a case in point, as it
revolves around a sexually ambiguous Spokane Indian girl who obsesses
over a book of really bad Indian poetry, and tracks down its author.
The fact that it would be difficult to believe anyone would become obsessed
over the bad poetry is not the tales worst flaw - its terminal
PC is. For example, in the whole book all the Indians are of the Spokane
tribe- seemingly significant because Alexie reputedly is half Spokane.
However, each tale-centered person is so generic and stereotyped that
they could be from any Indian tribe, so this point becomes a wholly
useless factoid in each story. In fact, the lead character- Corliss-
tells a geeky white person to Fight the stereotype!, yet
Alexie utterly ignores his own charge. She also feigns offense at innocuous
comments, yet Alexie never frames why she does so, nor has the character
question that, nor any of her actions, so what could be an entrée
into a character portrait instead remains a hermetic stereotype. And
at fifty-two pages long the story is a chore to read because its end
is seen coming by page ten.
Lawyers League is a one-note PC monologue about an immature
half black-half Spokane lawyer who has anger management issues, and
assaults a white man who may not be as racist as is presented. Can I
Get A Witness? is a story that, coincidentally mirrors the idea of a
story I recently wrote. My story is about the sickness of calling the
poor victims who died on 9/11 heroes, and what Alexie aptly
calls grief porn, and follows a survivor of
the Twin Towers collapse who is an evil person, debunking the notion
that all who were in the buildings were good and clean and innocent.
Alexie, however, has not my deftness nor subtlety. Where I get the reader
to sympathize with an evil character, Alexie merely has a lunatic PC
character, who survives a suicide bomber, run off at the mouth spouting
banal Left Wing crap about there having to have been a pedophile father
who was raping his daughter, and how that daughter must have been relieved
on 9/11 and thought Osama bin Laden a hero. I ask- which sounds the
better scenario to explore? Alexies execution is as prosaic and
banal as it sounds, and the story a perfect example of a good idea gone
Do Not Go Gentle revolves around a sexually frustrated couples
obsession with a brown dildo. Its as lame as it sounds. It fails
as a slice of life and is not funny- so fails as attempted satire. By
this point I was thinking that his ideas far outstrip his ability to
convey them through words- which might be why his film was better than
the writing Ive read. Flight Patterns is about a cab ride
to an airport, and is just an excuse for more PC preaching from an Ethiopian
cabbie to a Spokane passenger. The conversation is forced and heavy-handed
to the max, and its end melodramatic, until the last two sentences.
The last bad story is The Life And Times Of Estelle Walks Above,
a tale that literally consists of several lists of PC complaints. The
tale, as do all the prior ones, lacks subtlety, tells in a very overt
A to B to C manner, has another bad, melodramatic ending, and reflects
a shockingly narrow worldview that seems to revile universality. These
tales are hermetic, and meant only for Spokane Indian readers, and very
feeble-minded ones, at that. Although, if one were to judge from these
tales, thats all that exists on that res.
Then, just when it seems that Alexie is utterly hopeless, he drops a
flat-out brilliant, if not great, story on you. Do You Know Where
I Am? spans a long marriage, from a small incident of pre-marital
deceit, through adultery, and to a deathbed scene that is one of the
most moving ever penned. This tale comes out of nowhere. its characters
are rich, textured, and not stereotyped in the least. Why did it take
seven stories to get it right? I can only believe its because
Alexie really and truly does not know what constitutes good from bad
or great writing, and its a totally unconscious approach to writing,
like spinning a roulette wheel. Alexie simply cannot judge, and now
as I think back upon it, I do recall he was not, in any way, a prescient
critic, nor appreciator of published writing. But, make no mistake.
This story is as good as any youll find in print.
Just a notch or two below is the nest story, the books most lauded
tale, and an archetypal New Yorker story, where it appeared, selected
as one of 2003s best tales for the O. Henry Award, What You
Pawn I Will Redeem which follows the twenty-four hour quest of a
drunken homeless Indian to raise a thousand dollars to buy back a family
heirloom from a pawn shop. He fails, and ends up with the same amount
of money he started with, only to have the pawn broker give him the
heirloom, his grandmothers ceremonial tribal regalia, because
he knows the man worked hard for it. It leans a bit more
on stereotypes, and its sappy predictability denies it greatness like
its predecessor tale, but it still is a classic tale in a Frank Capra
vein, and well worth reading. The books final story is also very
good, and called What Ever Happened To Frank Snake Church?, and follows
a washed up Indian basketballer who comes up just short of his goal.
Then Alexie of the last three tales is a vastly different writer than
the Alexie of the first six. Call this schism the Good and Bad Shermans.
Good Sherman could be master, but Bad Sherman is a panderer to the worst
in art and people, and bad Sherman tends to beat Good Sherman by the
same two to one score as in this book.
The basic problem is that Bad Sherman cops out too easily, and gets
too hermetic- centering stories about things that have little interest
outside of a select group of people. Not only that, but there is little
range- the same PC touchstones are obsessively hit again and again.
It gets old by the second story, and the second alcoholic Indian- or
maybe the first. Let me repeat myself- Alexie utterly fails to Fight
the stereotype! He feeds them and does nothing to subvert them. And,
even more tellingly, he even fails the vile PC dictum of art is
truth, for his tales are more often bullshit, then well thought
out portrayals of people. And his stories wander aimlessly, more often
than not, and are far, far too long, save for the dildo tale, which
is so bad it never should have been written.
Of course, Alexie know that there isnt a reviewer in the published
world that will dare cal him on these manifest failings. To give two
examples from the PC eunuchs which dominate the Twin Cities of Minnesota
there is this from the terminally fellatric Rain Taxi: In
the end, Ten Little Indians tells the tales of a group of exceptional
people who are average and average people who are exceptional. More
reminiscent of Raymond Carvers episodic What We Talk About
When We Talk About Love than the geographically contained Sherwood
Anderson of Winesburg, Ohio, Alexies stories are ambiguously
ethnic, mourning, delighting, and devious in that ambiguity.
Well, the first sentence is a meaningless phrase meant to sound deep,
the carver reference rings true only if youve not read the work
he mentions, and the ambiguously ethnic comment is a head-scratcher
since Indians, and Spokane Indians especially, are in every tale.
Even more hilarious is the opening to a review of the book in the tabloid
City Pages: Sherman Alexie has never been one to view the world
in terms of red and white. The 36-year-old member of the Spokane/Coeur
dAlene tribe, who grew up on a reservation in eastern Washington
The hilarity resides in a) the fact that the whole book absolutely delineates
things in red and white, as do all of his works. Has Alexie ever written
of a Frenchman, or a white steelworker, or a black architect? And b)
the fact that right after that opening sentence the writer feels a need
to delineate Alexie in terms that could only have come from Alexie,
Yet, there is always the hope that Good Sherman will defeat Bad Sherman,
that depth and range will prove as alluring to him as stereotypes and
banality. Even he has to tire of preaching to the choir, and writing
such stereotypes after the tenth page or so, no? Perhaps not, because
the chances are that without his very ethnicity hed have a difficult
time rising above the sea of mediocrity the totality of his work has
kith with, despite his flashes of genuine brilliance. Learn discipline,
Sherman! If the six bad stories were cut to their essence, and then
had newer, non-stereotypical, elements added in they would be much better.
Damn! I really wanted this book to be good, very good, so that I could
sing the praises of a man Ive known and liked. But its not,
and unlike other critics Im very good, and too damned
honest- and honesty can be a bitch. But, while honesty can be a bane
to good art it, and acumen, are what criticism feeds on. Chew on that,
© Dan Schneider June 2005
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