This section contains 1,635 words
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Critical Review by Andrea-Bess Baxter
SOURCE: A review of Old Shirts & New Skins, First Indian on the Moon, and The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven, in Western American Literature, Vol. XXIX, No. 3, November, 1994, pp. 277-80.
In the review below, Baxter discusses elements of realism and imagination in Alexie's Old Shirts & New Skins, First Indian on the Moon, and The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven.
Many Native Americans have been proclaiming recently that their new weapons for the future will be their art. The proliferation of these weapons is vital, not only for the survival of traditional cultures, but for exposing the hard truths of their lives, which is the first step in instigating change. Activist or not, Sherman Alexie, a Spokane/Coeur d'Alene Indian from Wellpinit, Washington, is a natural-born warrior quite adept at shaking things up.
In [Old Shirts & New Skins, First Indian on the Moon, and The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven,] he continues his themes, from two previous books of poetry, of exploring the paradoxes of living on and off the reservation, of home and family, love affairs, sorrow and loss, helplessness and forgiveness. Some of his stories are full of despair; others are downright bleak. His direct honesty prevails and we are required to think and listen and think again even as we smile and laugh. He will not let us forget, well aware that without memory, stories will die.
Alexie has the power of a riveting storyteller, along with pivotal timing at using humor at the exact moment we need it most and expect it least. Throughout his work there's a stubborn insistence on living by his creed: "Survival = Anger × Imagination." His writing is deceptively minimalist and lucid in its simplicity, but there is nothing "easy" here. He refuses to allow us to relax.
In Old Shirts & New Skins his irony is honed to a sharp edge. This book is full of poetry, vignettes and little lessons. His talent for frequently turning history upside down is illustrated when Crazy Horse, who is often resurrected, finds himself in ludicrous situations. In "Indian Education" we learn that
Crazy Horse came back to life
in a storage room of the Smithsonian,
his body rising from a wooden crate
mistakenly marked ANONYMOUS HOPI MALE
In "Postcards to Columbus" he writes that "this history and country / folded over itself like a Mobius strip…. Christopher Columbus, you are the most successful real estate agent / who ever lived, sold acres and acres of myth." He also issues a warning: "Columbus, can you hear me over the white noise / of your television set? Can you hear the ghosts of drums approaching?"
History, movies, politics, cable TV—his penchant for discovering the irony in these areas is notable. All are thrown without mercy into "The Marlon Brando Memorial Swimming Pool": "I can't believe it. This late in the 20th century and Dennis Banks / and Marlon Brando are eating / finger sandwiches out by the swimming pool. This must be fiction. But, wait, / whatever happened to AIM? / Did they all drown because Marlon refused to pay for a lifeguard?" He reiterates that "There are no mistakes on the reservation. The 20th century warrior relies / on HBO for his vision / at three in the morning." At this point, it's not too difficult to "Imagine Coyote accepts the Oscar for lifetime achievement" nor to "Imagine the reservation metaphors: … pour whiskey into the pool / until it smells like my kidney;… / Imagine the possibilities. / … Imagine how our lives will change."
A well-meaning yet useless monument, a typical swimming pool, becomes a symbol for dashed hopes and dreams, whose illusionary lure is ruinous. The only person who remains somewhat intact is Vine Deloria, Jr., who has insisted all along that "there was never any water in the pool."
First Indian on the Moon, a volume of poetry and prose, continues to expose so many fraudulent illusions that tempt us all in America today. The filmmaking industry is again hard-hit with the fast-punching prose of "The Native American Broadcasting System." We are alerted to a news bulletin that Hollywood has "announced the establishment of a new category for this year's Academy Awards: Best Performance by a Non-Native in a Native American Role. Nominees this year include Burt Lancaster, Charles Bronson, Trevor Howard, Burt Reynolds, and Kevin Costner." Are we still seeing Indians as romantic symbols, not as real human beings? The current trend of interest in everything Indian has yet to prove otherwise.
In both volumes of poetry, Alexie perfects an intriguing style, of his own making I believe, in which a prose-sonnet uses fourteen stanzas and carries a word or two from the last line of the previous stanza to the first line of the next. It creates a curious flow, almost like automatic writing, surprising the reader and even the writer himself. "Captivity" (the title refers to the narrative of Mrs. Mary Rowlandson, who was taken captive by the Wampanoag of Massachusetts in 1676) employs this style, in which stanzas seven, eight, and nine illustrate a kind of subconscious reasoning:
Piece by piece, I reassemble the house where I was born, but there is a hole in the wall where there was none before. "What is this?" I ask my mother. "It's your sister," she answers. "You mean my sister made that hole?" "No," she says. "That hole in the wall is your sister." For weeks, I searched our architecture, studied the walls for imperfections. Listen: imagination is all we have as defense against capture and its inevitable changes.
I have changed my mind. In this story there are words fancydancing in the in-between, between then and now, between walls in the alley behind the Tribal Cafe where Indian boys smoke old cigarettes at half-time of the all-Indian basketball game. Mary Rowlandson, it's true, isn't it? Tobacco and sugar are the best weapons.
The best weapons are the stories and every time the story is told, something changes. Every time the story is retold, something changes….
A memorable character, Lester FallsApart, appears—and disappears—like an existential anti-hero throughout Alexie's books. He is perpetually caught in the "in-between" and always amazed at how or why he gets stuck there, between the Anglo and Indian worlds. And he somehow always survives his mishaps, drinking binges, house fires, jumping off rooftops onto an Indian girl's teardrop, singing, sleeping outside on the reservation, waking up in the city in the wrong house. No matter what happens, he remembers. He shows up here and there to tell his latest story and to remind us that "no one will believe this story so it must be true."
The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven, a collection of twenty-two short stories, and his first book by a major publishing house, continues the now-familiar themes and characters. Yet this work is more personal, autobiographical at times. He is still imagining, still believing in forgiveness, though "travelling heavy with illusions." Satire rescues Alexie from sliding into self-absorption or pontification. Perhaps he is telling us that one way Indians have survived has been to perfect the art of gallows humor.
This kind of humor is gloriously exalted in "The Approximate Size of My Favorite Tumor." Jimmy Many Horses drives his wife, Norma—the world champion fry bread maker—away with his unrelenting gallows humor concerning his impending death from cancer. "Actually my favorite tumor looks just like a baseball," he announces, calling himself Babe Ruth. Fed up, Norma makes good on her threats to leave him, even though they shared a certain kind of laughter which kept them from feeling the pain too strongly: "Humor was an antiseptic that cleaned the deepest of personal wounds." Months after she'd gone, Jimmy was still at it, telling his doctor that, after a few more zaps of useless radiation treatments, "I'll be Superman." "Really?" the doctor said. "I never knew that Clark Kent was a Spokane Indian."
Norma eventually realizes that not only will she inevitably feel his death deeply and privately, she will also have to deal with her fear that "every one of our elders who dies take a piece of our past away. And that hurts more because I don't know how much of a future we have." Whether or not she realizes she is also referring to her husband, we don't know. But she leaves the powwow circuit to come home. She is "a warrior in every sense of the word" and she returns home to help Jimmy "die the right way. And maybe because making fry bread and helping people die are the last two things Indians are good at." And they both laugh when Jimmy responds, "Well, at least you're good at one of them."
There is no typical plot in Alexie's prose and stories, no easy linear events to follow with a beginning, a middle and a neatly-wrapped ending. Things don't change rapidly, nor does hope always triumph over despair after a moment of understanding or a summer of sobriety.
By wielding the weapon of imagination skillfully and passionately, Sherman Alexie exposes a gritty realism of Indian life today. He creates history, past and present, a new mythology that re-interprets fiction and fact and introduces unforgettable characters, full of irony, pain and confusion, and an inexhaustible wit. He writes about real people and real places and that makes him a tremendously accessible writer. We are invited to share in this mythology of his own making, for he tells us in "Breaking Out the Shovel":
Friend, this is a strange journey, digging
for hours, then days, through generations of need
and it is better not to know how much farther
the digging needs to go, but I want you to know
I often stop for rest, ask directions …
… I move through history
and my story and your story, gathering
into our warmth, this heart changing by halves.
This section contains 1,635 words
(approx. 6 pages at 300 words per page)