Sherman Alexie brings on the 'Blasphemy'
Blasphemy feels pretty good when Sherman Alexie is writing it. Mostly centered on American Indian characters and perspectives, Mr. Alexie has no compunctions about knocking down the stereotypes that line the foundation of American mythology. Mr. Alexie's stories are always irreverent in the most truthful way, lending a smirk to the title of his latest collection.
The collection cushions some of Mr. Alexie's new stories within a selection from his previously published work, producing a kind of "abridged Alexie" that will capture both new and devoted readers. Mr. Alexie is a Spokane/Coeur D'Alene American Indian poet, writer and filmmaker. His writing usually describes American Indians -- usually Spokane or Coeur D'Alene -- on and off the "rez," or reservation, many of whom struggle to make their way in or come to terms with a more privileged white context.
Grove Press ($27).
While many of his stories deal overtly with an American Indian experience, Mr. Alexie's writing is strong because it is relatable. The volume contains 31 stories -- almost evenly split between new and previously published work -- many dealing with American Indian placement and displacement, but all human and accessible to any audience.
Throughout "Blasphemy," Mr. Alexie circles back on the same themes, even the same details (7-Elevens, cancer, basketball and being 30 pounds overweight, for example), building the collection concretely as well as on his strong voice. There is a definite progression to the stories, grouped together without gimmick so that the settings and characters seem to bleed into one another while remaining distinct within the world of the story. The trouble with this setup is that it can feel a bit repetitive when read in large portions, but the reward of a tight, cohesive collection outweighs that.
There are also wonderfully placed stories that are shorter than the rest and often include a condensed magic realism, acting as an unexpected but welcome break from the rhythm of the collection.
The story "Breakfast" opens with: "The son cracked an egg, expecting yolk and egg, but instead dropped his father's impossibly small corpse into the mixing bowl." Later, "Emigration" picks up that brevity and magic realism to describe an exchange between a mother and son who forgets to call, whimsically mediated through the hummingbirds and hornets that she sends as emissaries.
Mr. Alexie covers everything from childhood to adulthood, love, death, isolation to self-definition. The only difficulty comes with female perspectives. Particularly, "Scenes From a Life" is a first-person retrospective of a white woman's tryst with an American Indian youth and her life after that defining moment. She recounts other transitions in her life, but keeps coming back to her relationships with various men and, ultimately, the American Indian whose name she does not remember.
The story lacks Mr. Alexie's voice; the irony and twists of detail usually present in his writing are missing so that it feels unfinished and too sweet. She describes, "I remember all of my lovers' names. I write them down in a book with the Titanic painted on the cover." Though this narrative falls short of three-dimensional, the collection includes other stories from a woman's perspective, though through a third-person narration, which allows Mr. Alexie's voice to flesh out the characters ("Assimilation" and "The Search Engine").
Mr. Alexie is, however, consistently successful with structural experimentation, such as in "War Dances" and "Indian Education," both reprinted in this collection. "Scars" is the story of Mike, an American Indian who begins by talking about his past injuries, then leads into his imprisonment and release. The story is told from his perspective to an unknown narrator, who only briefly describes Mike's scars to the reader, creating a form of monologue, forcing the reader to watch, rather than inhabit, the story.
Though there are a couple of false starts, "Blasphemy" succeeds in placing new stories within the solid foundation of what are now Alexie classics. The result is a thoughtfully arranged overview of Mr. Alexie's most important themes and some of his most loved characters, complemented by dynamic new work. For both those familiar with and readers new to Sherman Alexie, "Blasphemy" serves as a good basic scripture.
First Published October 21, 2012 12:00 am