War Dances by Sherman Alexie

(So I thought forget about the Read and Become an Asshole Tour. I don’t really want to become an asshole.)

Things to know about Sherman Alexie:

1.He recently won the National Book Award for his young adult novel The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-time Indian.

2. He is insanely readable.

3.He is one cool guy.


Introducing Puma's new line of ceremonial moccasins.

You can find a stronger introduction to Alexie, though, than his brand new story/poetry collection, War Dances. It’s a very mixed bag that ranges from terrific to kind of lousy, but two or three of its stories together are worth the price of an eventual paperback.

The theme that holds War Dances together is patrimony, whether characters are dealing with failed fathers or are failed fathers themselves. Or, as the author said in an interview with Advance, “I’m mostly interested in the ways in which men fail at being men—or rather, fail at being good men.”

“War Dances,” the title piece, is a very good one. I’m not sure what its merits are as a focused story, but I found it amazingly honest and at times sidesplitting. (The protagonist complains to his brother-in-law that when he got an MRI, he asked to have the machine play country music because it was something his late father would have listened to, and they played ‘Shania Twain and Faith Hill shit.’ His brother-in-law replies, ‘You wanted to hear the alcoholic Indian father jukebox.’)

Nearly every piece concerns a bookish, married Spokane Indian man from the state of Washington dogged by issues with fathers and masculinity. I like to think I’m better than this, but I can’t help but slip into that distracting game of guessing which details from the stories are autobiographical, you know… which thoughts (especially the violent or creepy ones) are the author’s and are merely wearing a fake moustache called Fiction.

But Alexie’s most seemingly transparent memoirs are his best stories. “Fearful Symmetry”—in which the speaker’s name is “Sherwin Polatkin,” for God’s sake—is my favorite in the book. In it, the protagonist copes with writer’s block after his artistic castration at the hands of the Hollywood system. The story just has priceless lines:

“Weren’t Americans afraid of tragedy? As a Native American, Sherwin was, by definition, trapped in a difficult but lustful marriage with tragedy.”

“And yes, Polatkin [was] the possessor of a reservation-inspired messiah complex (‘I am the smartest Indian in the universe and I will save all you other Indians!’)…”

I’d have encouraged Alexie to venture beyond his backyard, but if stories like “The Senator’s Son” are what must come from that, then I think he’s fine where he is. That story is about a homophobe whose father is a hypocritical Republican politician. The son beats a gay man bloody to find he’s actually his best friend from sixteen years ago. It’s as moralizing as this collection gets—and moralizing is fine when you go about it with some subtlety, but subtlety isn’t Alexie’s approach to anything and as a result this story is a preachy mess.

Alexie includes several poems in the collection, too. Some aren’t as profound as they put on. Others, like “Ode for Pay Phones,” structured after a Fibbonachi Sequence, are golden.

His strength, I think, lies in his raw emotional appeal; he has an indisputable knack for making you laugh and tear up without you feeling at all ashamed for doing it. He’s like a Philip Roth who never quite matured, but that has its good points: Alexie may swing wildly at his targets, but there’s a likable exuberance to his writing amidst the angst whereas Roth is a calculating curmudgeon.

A coworker of mine read “War Dances” when it was published in the New Yorker and said Sherman Alexie might be the source of the next Great American Novel. Parts of this collection cast some doubt on that, but I have to say it’s still a possiblity.


2 thoughts on “War Dances by Sherman Alexie

  1. You’ve been pretty active around these shores lately; how many books do you read a month? I wish I could read that fast but I just can’t.
    Anyhow, thanks to you I’ve been learning lots about authors I didn’t even know about (I know, for someone who claims to be a writer I’m not very cultured in other people’s work or who’s who. It’s terrible and shameful I must say) so keep up the good work Sir.

  2. Hey, I thanks for the kudos! (And sorry for the long delay—laptop has been on the fritz lately)

    I’m not a terribly fast reader, but I do spend a decent amount of my day with books. I average a little over a book a week, but I know people who are just fiendish, tripling that. For the rest of us, a reading rate depends not just on what we read, but what we read for.

    And you know, there’s something to be said for writers who don’t necessarily need constant exposure to other novels in order to keep their ideas coming.

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