Over at the Aqueduct Press blog I have an article about the stand-out books I read in 2014. I start the article by talking about how the imagination, experience and intent of the writer, and the reader’s own context and desires form a separate little world, a bubble universe for the duration of the reading experience. Each reader therefore creates a different, unique world during his or her interaction with the book. Sometimes these worlds leak into our everyday existence, so that the books reverberate through our daily lives. Our inner selves are shifted subtly. Who knows – small shifts in the moment might well lead to large changes in the long term. My own life has been changed by many things, and books are among them.
In the article I wrote about a dozen or so remarkable books. Unfortunately I wasn’t able to finish one of the books I had hoped to include in 2014, because I was already way past the deadline for the article. So I want to mention something about it here.
I’m talking about Sherman Alexie’s short story collection, Blasphemy. I saw it staring at me in the library; I had heard of Alexie but had never read him. With a title like Blasphemy, how could I resist?
I soon found out that Kirkus Reviews wasn’t lying when it called Alexie a master of the short form. The collection highlights some classics as well as more recent tales. The book jacket describes the author as “a bold and irreverent observer of life among Native Americans in the Pacific Northwest.’ What I found remarkable in his storytelling was Alexie’s ability to start a story almost casually, and then take the reader on an emotionally charged journey, with twists and turns that range from solemn to mocking to heartbreaking to darkly, hysterically funny. Lord Byron said “And if I laugh at any one thing, ‘Tis only that I may not weep,” but Alexie does both. There were times I found myself laughing and crying simultaneously. This is not easy but he makes it look completely natural and effortless. So consider “The Approximate Size of My Favorite Tumor” where the narrator is a man dying of cancer. You wouldn’t think a cancer story can be this funny, but it is. And it is also deeply sad at the same time. Then there’s the tender exploration of a long-term relationship in “Do you Know Where I am?” There’s loss and poetry in “The Search Engine.” The haunting “Green World” about wind turbines on a reservation. The stunning “What You Pawn I will Redeem” about a homeless man’s attempts to buy back his grandmother’s powwow regalia from a pawn shop is such that no description – only the story itself – can do justice to it. Alexie’s stories showcase hypocrisy and pain, endurance and prejudice, relationships and modern-day quests – there are reservation stories, big-city stories but whatever the setting, they go beyond the stereotype of broken lives and alcoholism. Even when Alexie is calling out the damage done to his people by centuries of colonialism and genocide, he manages to make fun of everybody, even Indians, and his humor and compassion is similarly universal. How does he do it? I am (almost) inarticulate with admiration.
Here, for example is an extract from the last-named story, where a friendly cop has picked up our very drunk homeless narrator. The dialogue begins with the cop:
“You Indians. How the hell do you laugh so much? I just picked your ass off the railroad tracks, and you’re making jokes. Why the hell do you do that?”
“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.”
And another dialogue from “War Dances,” where the narrator is tending to his father in hospital. His father is cold and the blankets are thin, so he goes looking for better blankets. He finds another Indian man, whose sister is about to have a baby in the same hospital.
“So you want to borrow a blanket from us?” the man asked.
“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. Jesus, you’d think my sister was having, like, a dozen babies.”
I am always aware of odd resonances when I read literature by American Indians – I am, after all, the kind of Indian that Columbus was looking for when he found the Native peoples of North America. As a Native colleague shared with me, her family refers to the two kinds of Indians as ‘Gandhi Indian’ and ‘Sitting Bull Indian’ – a neat distinction! We are different, with our different histories and cultures (India and the First Nations each have multiple, distinct, different cultures) yet, in some times, places and contexts, I find intersections, meeting places, common ground — some intersections are particular to those with a colonial history, others more universal. So as I ponder Alexie’s mastery of humor, I am reminded of a visit, last summer, to an ancient Buddhist site in central India, the Sanchi Stupa. I remember standing before a stone pillar that reached into the sky. About two thirds of the way up, the ancients had carved four figures out of the stone, each of whom were holding up the rest of the column. Of these, one had an angry expression, another sorrowful. The third bore his burden with equanimity, and the fourth was laughing his head off. They each had to bear the same burden, but they bore it differently.
In this book there is anger and sorrow, and endurance, and much laughter, the kind that emerges from the deepest wellsprings of our human selves. Sherman Alexie has some damn good stories to tell. Read them.