Sunday, 15 November 2009

War Dances by Sherman Alexie - review

Passion from outside the mainstreamFor all Sherman Alexie's trademark energy and bravery, War Dances reveals a more mature voice
Gale Zoë Garnett

Published on Friday, Nov. 06, 2009 4:53PM EST

I first met the work of Sherman Alexie when reviewing his short-story collection Ten Little Indians. It was love at first read. Years later, I saw a film called The Business of Fancydancing, featuring a deeply moving performance by Canadian actor Michelle St. John. Alexie acted in and directed the film, from his own script.

A predisposition to embrace all created by an author never rules out the possibility of a dud appearing. Happily, War Dances, Alexie's new collection of short stories and poetry, is a leap forward. The author is also a stand-up comedian and performance artist. In earlier work, he sometimes charged into performance-style rants that, as words on a page, needed tightening. War Dances, for all his trademark energy and bravery, shows a more mature voice that does not see economy as a betrayal of passion.

Alexie is a Seattle-based, native of the Spokane/Coeur D'Alene bands, and his work reveals both the light and dark within native American life.

A paradox in his writing is that you can be in the middle of delighted laughter when he will hit you with a sentence so true to the core of a character's pain that you suck in your breath or are startled to realize you are crying.

The poetry selections are less “poem” than “riff.” Not jazz riffs. Alexie's riffing, some of which is kindred to the serious and comic universe of Tom King, is, for me, “First Nations Dub” – not based on African-Caribbean rhythms, but rather connected to drum groups, powwow dancing and funny, lyrical conversations in “Indian bars.”

From The Theology of Reptiles:

We found a snake, dead in midmolt.
“It's almost like two snakes,” I said.
My brother grabbed it by the head
And said, “It just needs lightning bolts.”

Laughing, he jumped the creek and draped
The snake over an electric fence.
Was my brother being cruel? Yes,
But we were shocked when that damn snake

Spiraled off the wire and splayed,
Alive, on the grass, made a fist
Of itself, then, gorgeous and pissed,
Uncurled, stood on end, and swayed

For my brother, who, bemused and odd,
Had somehow become one snake's god.

The short stories are the greater gift of this book, and Breaking and Entering is one of the best. The narrator is George Wilson, a professional film editor who is incapable of editing in telling his own story. Cluttered word clusters, weasel words and phrases are everywhere. It is a tribute to Alexie's verbal dexterity that the irony is clear on the first page.

“Skip the door” is a good piece of advice – a maxim, if you will – that I've applied to my entire editorial career, if not my entire life. To state it in less poetic terms, one would say, “An editor must omit all unnecessary information.” So, in telling you this story … in constructing the scenes, I will attempt to omit all unnecessary information.”

When he opens a door, the reader, while laughing at the goofbabble, is dropped, hard, into the story. A window shatters, our editor goes to the basement, surprises a teenaged burglar, whacks him in the head and kills him. This précis is encased in self-centred filigree. And, as always with Alexie, the pain and bewilderment still bleed through.

The dead boy is “a good kid … a decent athlete … a decent student … a decent person,” is African-American. His mother declares the murder a hate crime, another case of a white man killing a black youth. Wilson believes he has become “the most hated man in Seattle.” He is indignant: “I am not a white man. I am an enrolled member of the Spokane Tribe of Indians. Oh, I don't look Indian, or at least not typically Indian. Some folks assume I'm a little bit Italian or Spanish or perhaps Middle Eastern. Most folks think I'm just another white guy who tans well.”

The black community continues to protest. Wilson calls a local newspaper and proclaims his ethnic identity. Finally, his actual deed hits him: He murdered a kid who screwed up and was trying to flee.

This acknowledgment causes constant anxiety about black people seeking retribution. Black men in groups, however small, fill him with fear.

“What if they recognized me? What if they were friends of Elder Briggs? What if they attacked me?”

Two other remarkable tales are the title story and The Senator's Son. War Dances is the close-to-the-bone story of a man's relationship with his beloved, wounded and wounding, alcoholic, funny and philosophical father.

“Frankly,” my doctor said. “Your brain is beautiful.”

“Thank you,” I said, though it was the oddest compliment I'd ever received.

I wanted to call up my father and tell him that a white man thought my brain was beautiful. But I couldn't tell him anything. He was dead. I told my wife and sons that I was okay. I told my mother and siblings. I told my friends. But none of them laughed as hard about my beautiful brain as I knew my father would have. I miss him, the drunk bastard. I would always feel closest to the man who most disappointed me.

The Senator's Son chronicles a brother-deep childhood friendship that sunders when one of the adolescent boys admits he is gay. Time passes, and the now-adult senator's son (whose father is an ascendant politician) brutally smashes the nose of his unrecognized childhood friend in a random gay-bashing. Realizing whom he has mauled, he seeks his old friend. They meet. Jeremy, the gay man, with the wisdom and weariness of smart people who live outside the so-called mainstream (e.g. gays, native people, the disabled), gets to bring clarity and hard-edged, unsentimental forgiveness to his friend.

It would be super to quote from this story, but I've used up my word quota. And besides, you should read this wonderful book for yourself.

Contributing reviewer Gale Zoë Garnett's current novel is Savage Adoration. Her current favourite book is War Dances.

From The Toronto Globe and Mail

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