Thursday, August 27, 2009

This Is What It Means to Say Sherman Alexie

Self-proclaimed short story month, post number 27.

I had to double-check it was the same Sherman Alexie. It was, of course. I remembered reading—and liking—Alexie’s short story “This Is What It Means to Say Phoenix, Arizona” a few months ago. (A garbled version of the story is found here.) It’s a somewhat stolid, carefully knitted description of a Native American who lives in a reservation and who has to fly down to Phoenix to pick up his dead father’s things. Native American traditions, embodied in a visionary character called Thomas Builds-the-Fire, are subjected to perplexity and even mockery by others. Native Americans in the reservation have to cope with modernity, represented by both appliances and alcohol. I generally liked the story; some recurring themes give it depth and speak well of its author’s technique. It was part of Best American Short Stories 1994.

A couple weeks ago, Sherman Alexie published a story in The New Yorker called “War Dances.” It’s available here. It feels like a completely different voice from that of “This Is What It Means to Say Phoenix, Arizona.” This time, it’s all-out, without the prim narrative approach of the earlier story. It’s a fierce autobiographical voice, the narrator’s concerns gushing out and often being made fun of. The narrator is sick, and he builds up to this fact, piecing together what happened and at one point leading us to believe it’s less serious than it was.

The story is divided into titled sections. They sometimes read like stanzas of a pantoum, with elements being passed along from one section to another, with slight variations. This disjointed cohesiveness ties in well with one of the central concerns in the story, and it’s the relationship between fathers and sons. Parents and children are different, yes, and independent, yes, but some things are certainly passed along from one generation to the next. This is true of the sections and themes in the story, too.

Some sections of “War Dances” are quite different from others. We suddenly get a transcript of an interview of a WWII veteran who recalls how the narrator’s father was killed in combat. (The interviewee says he resisted the temptation of making up a poetic flurry to fill in for the grandfather’s last words.) There’s a clever and elaborate “exit interview for my father.” We read of the narrator’s childhood hydrocephalus, and his anguished conversations with his doctor.

We see the narrator visiting his ill, reckless and amputated father in the hospital. The father says he’s cold, and begs his son for blankets; this poignant request is left for us to mull over while the narrator deals with impatient nurses and then roams around looking for another Native American who may have a spare blanket. About the nurse: “Yes, she was a health-care worker and she didn’t want to be cruel, but she believed that there came a point when doctors should stop rescuing people from their own self-destructive impulses. And I couldn’t disagree with her, but I could ask for the most basic of comforts, couldn’t I?” And here’s the fellow Native American, when the narrator asks for a blanket: “So you want to borrow a blanket from us? […] Because you thought 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.”

The story is wild and clever. Every piece fits. As you can tell, it draws much more enthusiasm from me than did the earlier, often anthologized piece. This is what it means to say Sherman Alexie now, and that’s a good thing.

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