"Fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me." So goes the old saying; but when an entire people comes up against a culture whose capacity to cheat and deceive seems infinite, shame quickly turns to systemic grief. Sherman Alexie's characters are more aware of this than most: "I know enough to cover my heart in any crowd of white people," one character says; another longs to be called "a Coeur d'Alene as a description, rather than as an excuse, reason, prescription, placebo, prediction, or diminutive". Indian drivers are subjected to routine shakedowns by traffic cops who then tell them to move on because they "don't fit the profile of the neighbourhood", while more genteel white folks regard "the Grand Canyon, Niagara Falls, the full moon, newborn babies, and Indians with the same goofy sentimentalism".
Throughout, Alexie's Indians are waiting to be treated as "eccentric and complicated", rather than as stereotypes, not only by the whites they encounter, but also by their fellow Indians – and by themselves. (Aboriginal American peoples are referred to as Indians throughout, as opposed to "Native American", generally seen here as patronising and euphemistic.) Yet beneath this desire to be seen for what they are, they continue to bear the grief and shame of having endured genocide and ecological disaster. "If you had broken into my heart," one Spokane man says, "you could have looked inside and seen the thin white skeletons of one thousand salmon."
Blasphemy, a collection of 15 new stories and 16 previously published works, is a timely reminder of Alexie's genius. It includes many of his finest stories, master lessons in economy such as "The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fist Fight in Heaven", whose throwaway last line punches a beautiful, sad hole in what we are usually prepared to take for "the real world". That narrative economy is present throughout, but may best be illustrated by the new story "Green World", which compresses into just over four pages the essence of shame and grief. At first sight, the piece seems little more than an anecdote. It tells of a white man who has been hired to dispose of the "hundreds … possibly thousands" of birds killed each year by a small windfarm on an Indian reservation. He feels lucky to have found the job: "The tribe had wanted to hire an Indian. I am not an Indian. But they hired me because nobody else wanted the job. Or rather, three or four Indians had been hired but had soon quit because of the terrible amounts of blood and gore. Frankly speaking, if one comes near enough dead birds, one begins to smell like dead birds. It is not an odour that can easily be washed away."
For our white narrator, then, the blood on his hands is a nuisance, but he does not understand its greater significance until he meets an old Indian in the midst of the carnage. The Indian is carrying a gun and singing a death song – and when he sees the white man, it seems that he is about to shoot him. Then, having reconsidered, he kneels down and gathers up the remains of a bird so ravaged and mutilated that it is beyond identification. By now, he is weeping:
"'My tribe built these windmills,' he said.
'I know,' I said.
'We started this,' he said.
'I suppose,' I said.
'This is just the beginning.'"
From this point on, anecdote shifts into tragedy, both individual and political, as the old Indian sets the dead bird aside and begins shooting at the nearest windmill. "He stepped forward and closely studied the shotgun blast in the windmill, as if he expected the machine to bleed. Then he stepped back and shot the windmill again. He reloaded, shot, reloaded, shot, reloaded, shot, and then stepped back and looked up at the windmill. It was still moving, working, and ready to kill birds. It was impervious."
In this extraordinary moment the entire history of the white man's trickery is re-enacted in one futile gesture, along with the long and desperate history of futile resistance to an impervious, bloodless foe. It would have been a white corporation who sold the tribe the turbines; that corporation might well have used some goofy and sentimental Native American slogan to greenwash a product it knew to be environmentally destructive – and once again, having made a seemingly honourable treaty in good faith, the Indians have been duped. For the white man, the dead birds create a bad odour that clings to the skin; for the Indian, complicity in this mass killing is a matter of irredeemable shame. The power of "Green World", as with so much of Alexie's work, is that it obliges us to enter into an imaginative pact with the old Indian's grief – for it is in the recognition of grief that we begin to recover the world from those, ourselves included, who would ignore its eccentricity and complexity, in order to avoid its pain.