Ever find you really like a book but don’t have much to say about it? So it is with Sherman Alexie’s War Dances. It is, in typical Alexie fashion, a gracefully written collection of short stories and poems that manages to be insightful not just about what it means to be Native American in the 21st Century, but how personal identity is a profoundly unreliable thing that nevertheless greatly influences the way we get by in the world. Each piece is – if I can use such a word without fear of ridicule – delightful, even when they tackle questions of racism, homophobia, marital dissolution, and dementia. Some of my speechlessness is due to my short story overdose in 2008; the rest of it is feeling like sometimes it’s enough just to say, “Yeah, that was pretty good,” and not belabor the point.
So rather than wrestle with finding my way in to another lengthy screed, here’s a quick snapshot of three of my favorite stories in the collection, and I’ll close with a brief personal story about Alexie.
“Breaking and Entering.” George is home alone when he hears someone shatter a window in his basement. He descends the stairs to find a black teenager rifling through his possessions. George casually, almost thoughtlessly, picks up his son’s aluminum Little League bat, more for protection than aggression. When the teenager attempts to bolt past him for the door, George swings the bat, catching the thief in the temple and killing him instantly – and totally accidentally. George is pilloried by the African-American community as another in a long line of white men responsible for the death of a black youth. The catch, though, is that George is Native American. Alexie never tips his hand about this fact too early, and once he’s made the big reveal, spends the rest of the story reflecting on the nature of power. Is it possible for a story to be even more relevant years after it was written? Recent events in Ferguson, New York, Cleveland, and elsewhere make it unfortunately so.
“The Senator’s Son.” William, the son of a remarkably (and atypically) progressive Republican senator, is involved in a hate crime, taking part in an attack on three gay men late at night. It turns out that one of the victims is William’s former best friend, a fellow Young Republican who came out to him in high school. Provocative (and resonant) not just for what it tells us about the lengths people are willing to go to in order to protect their reputations, but also for William’s acknowledgement that, yes, homosexuality is biologically hard-wired into some people, but hatred might be just as inescapable for others.
“Fearful Symmetry.” A marginal writer gets his shot at the Hollywood big time when he’s hired to write a screenplay adapting a book about a firefighter. He fails miserably, suffers an existential crisis, quits writing altogether, takes up competitive crossword-puzzle-solving, and finds redemption in lying to strangers. It’s the lightest story of the bunch – a breezy read that still manages to say some important things about recognizing one’s place in the world.
For the uninitiated, War Dances is a quality entry point into Alexie’s world, an award-winning collection that doesn’t overstay its welcome while still giving the reader plenty to chew on.
And now the personal story. I’ve been a fan of Alexie’s since the late 90s, coming to him first through the movie Smoke Signals, and more recently through his spectacular Young Adult novel, The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian. When I heard he’d be doing a book signing at the National Council of Teachers of English Conference a few years ago, I set aside other obligations to make sure I was there.
When I got up to the table, the man was kind and generous, making each person feel noticed and appreciated despite the long queue that had already shuffled past and which still wound through the exhibition hall behind me. Alexie signed a couple books for me, and I asked him if I could get a photo with him.
His response: “Can we take it like we’re at the prom?”
What was I going to say?
Urusei Yatsura – We Are Urusei Yatsura (1996)