Saturday, January 23, 2010

Ten Little Indians by Sherman Alexie

"I was raised one mile south of where the first Spokane Indian was ever born, and I somehow felt like a nomad" says Corliss, a Spokane Indian and character in Sherman Alexie's first short story, "The Search Indian".
In Ten Little Indians, all of the characters, including Corliss, an aspiring poet at Washington State University, Jackson, a homeless man wandering the streets of Seattle, and William, a professional with a home, wife and child, struggle to retain their Native American heritage in a culture that has historically oppressed them and forced them to assimilate. All of the characters Alexie portrays are passionate; even Russell, the personal trainer, in "Whatever Happened to Frank Snake Church", has a soul.

Sherman Alexie poses that for the modern day Native American this struggle is irresolvable. In "Lawyer's League", Richard, an aspiring politician, realizes that he cannot have a serious relationship with blonde-haired blue-eyed Teresa, even though he sees her as "a strong possibility" since no "black Indian could stand at the victors' podium and thank his white wife and half-white children for all of their support during the long and successful campaign." In the story "What You Pawn I Will Redeem", Alexie communicates the Native Americans sense of displacement when Jackson, a homeless man, regains his grandmother's pow-wow dance regalia from a pawnbroker for $5, then puts it on and dances with it in the middle of an intersection in Seattle.

Much of this book read like an overly opinionated op-ed piece. And Sherman Alexie is OUT OF CONTROL. Consider this passage, where Richard meets Teresa: "Yet another pretty liberal from Seattle! Her black business suit probably converted into a rainproof tent. She wore eyeliner, lipstick and three-inch pumps to dinner, but she likely wore stupid t-shirts (George can't spell W!), blue jeans and huge scuffed boots at the office. She's probably run 23 marathons and climbed Mount Rainer 16 times, and had great calves and extraordinary upper-body strength, and most certainly had scored 1545 on her SATs, and earned some highly challenging and profoundly useless degree from an Ivy League chop shop."
This isn't leisurely coffee shop reading, and sometimes I think that out of courtesy to his readers, SA needed to preface this book by cautioning: "Watch-out! I am ultra opinionated, and I am ANGRY."
And maybe he has something to be angry about. Much of what he says about the oppression of Native American culture is true. Native Americans have chronic health, alcoholic and unemployment issues, and it hasn't been until the recent wealth from casinos that the reservations have had some ability to improve their poverty-striken conditions.

Ten Little Indians is full of totally bizarre humor, you will laugh out loud when you read this book; In "Do not go Gentle" a father brings his newborn back to life with a vibrating sex toy named Chocolate Thunder.
Nearly all of the stories take place in Seattle, and Alexie is obviously very familiar with the area, giving lots of accurate details about streets, parks, and community colleges.

Probably the biggest criticism that I would give to Sherman Alexie is that he writes too much. He over says things. In "The Life and Times of Estelle Walks Above", for example, the main character recounts how his mother had been sort of "C+, B-", doing things like forgetting his 9th birthday, but consistently feeding and clothing him and driving him to school; and at the end son and mother drive past a woman walking down a busy sidewalk in a white dress with menstrual stain, and blood dripping down here leg, and the son screams at his mom to do something and she says, I know, I am going to, but in the end she doesn't do anything to help the woman.
It is obvious that this scene depicts the same "failed but well intentioned" relationship the mother has to her son, but then Alexie goes on to say: "My mother and I have loved and failed each other, and we will keep on loving and failing each other, and one of us will end up burning the other, and the survivor will burn down the church with grief's hungry fire." (see how passionate he is? and how poetical?)
But the problem with this passage is that he didn't need to say it at all; it is like telling someone a knock-knock joke and then afterwards explaining why the joke is funny.
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