Sherman Alexie | Critical Review by Leslie Marmon Silko

This literature criticism consists of approximately 8 pages of analysis & critique of Sherman Alexie.
This section contains 2,173 words
(approx. 8 pages at 300 words per page)
Buy the Critical Review by Leslie Marmon Silko

Critical Review by Leslie Marmon Silko

SOURCE: "Big Bingo," in The Nation, New York, Vol. 260, No. 23, June 12, 1995, pp. 856-58, 860.

In the following review, Silko studies characterization in Reservation Blues.

When N. Scott Momaday won the Pulitzer Prize for his novel House Made of Dawn in 1969, book reviewers fretted that the experience of Indian reservations was too far out of the "American mainstream" for most readers; by now, such expressions of concern should seem quaint. Since 1969, the "global economy" has brought changes; now a good deal of urban and suburban United States has begun to resemble one giant government reservation—clear-cut, strip-mined then abandoned not just by Peabody Coal and General Motors but by Wal-Mart too—where massive unemployment and hopelessness trigger suicide and murder. As the good jobs have gone the way of the great herds of buffalo, the United States has become a nation of gamblers. Suddenly Indian writers are not "writing from the margins" of U.S. culture, they are writing from the center of the front page.

Thanks to Bishop Landa and his thugs, who burned the great libraries of the Americas in 1540, we know very little about the early literatures of the Americas. But it is clear from oral narratives that lengthy "fictions" of interlinked characters and events were commonplace. So it should come as no surprise that voices such as Linda Hogan, Betty Louise Bell, Ray Young Bear, Greg Sarris and Adrian C. Louis are emerging.

Another of these writers, Sherman Alexie, has swept onto the publishing scene with poems and short stories that dazzle with wicked humor, lean, fresh language and deep affection for his characters. His collection of interlinked short stories, The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fist Fight in Heaven, won a number of prizes, including the PEN/Hemingway Award for best first book. My favorite story in that collection is titled "Because My Father Always Said He Was the Only Indian Who Saw Jimi Hendrix Play 'The Star-Spangled Banner' at Woodstock." In The Business of Fancydancing, Alexie's characters from the Spokane reservation stop off in Reno. With their last dollars they hit the jackpot and live it up for about twenty-four hours before they lose it all again. The old American Dream: Hit the jackpot, win the lottery, bingo big.

Now Alexie's first novel, Reservation Blues, focuses on the American Dream and the price of success. All over the world in rural communities, young people share similar dreams, stirred by the same images beamed in by satellite TV and by the same lyrics of rock and roll music. Youth in this "global village" share similar discouragement too—unemployment, hunger and aborted attempts to escape their hopeless situation.

The characters in Reservation Blues have been out of high school for a few years. Their home is a small Indian town on the Spokane reservation with dead-end jobs and shared poverty and sadness to look forward to. The Spokane people still watch out for one another like one big family, except sometimes this big family seems a bit dysfunctional. (Of course, a dysfunctional family is still better than no family at all.) But for the rural landscape and the strong sense of tribal identity, Alexie's Spokane Indian town of Wellpinit could be a neighborhood in East L.A. or the Bronx; except the Spokane people use car wrecks and cheap wine, not drive-by shootings and crack, to make their escape. Reservation housing and innercity housing are quite similar:

Thomas still lived in the government HUD house where he had grown up. It was a huge house by reservation standards … however, the house had never really been finished because the Bureau of Indian Affairs cut off the building money halfway through construction. The water pipes froze every winter, and windows warped in the hot summer heat.

So while Alexie writes about the "Spokane Indian reservation," the reader begins to realize that poverty in the United States has common denominators. Take the powdered milk that connects poor rural communities and poor urban areas all over the country:

No matter how long an Indian stirred her commodity milk, it always came out with those lumps of coagulated powder. There was nothing worse. Those lumps were like bombs, moist on the outside with an inner core of dry powdered milk. An Indian would take a big swig of milk, and one of those coagulated powder bombs would drop into her mouth and explode when she bit it. She'd be coughing little puffs of powdered milk for an hour.

But Sherman Alexie doesn't limit his world to a single, corporeal dimension; Shakespeare and Henry James use ghosts, and he does too. Blues guitarist Robert Johnson walks into Wellpinit, having faked his death by poison years before so he could find out how to undo the deal he made with the old "Gentleman," the Devil got up as a well-dressed white man. He's been told there is a large woman on a mountaintop somewhere who can help him. Thomas Builds-the-Fire gives Johnson a ride up the sacred mountain where Big Mom lives; Big Mom is part of God but she's not God herself.

Later, Thomas notices that Johnson left behind his guitar in the van. When his friend Victor touches the guitar, it makes wonderful music despite his lack of skill. Victor "wanted to resist all of it, but the guitar moved in his hands, whispered his name. Victor closed his eyes and found himself in a dark place. 'Don't play for them. Play for me,' said a strange voice." This is the Devil's guitar; by the time Victor stopped playing, "his hair stood on end, his shirt pitted with burn holes and his hands blistered."

The Devil guitar seduces them, and Thomas, Victor and Junior, with Chess and Checkers as backup, form a rock and roll band named Coyote Springs. They dream of modest success—to open for Aerosmith at Madison Square Garden and make a little money; here the "American Dream" has been downscaled. This being an Indian reservation, everyone has an opinion about Coyote Springs: Christian churchgoers call their efforts Devil music (which in this case is literally true); the tribal chairman is jealous and yearns to find any excuse to arrest them. But "gossip about the band spread from reservation to reservation. All kinds of Indians showed up: Yakima, Lummi, Makah, Snohomish, Coeur d'Alene. Thomas and his band had developed a small following before they ever played a gig."

With the sounds from the Devil guitar, Coyote Springs wins a battle of the bands in Seattle, and record company executives pounce on them with a recording contract and studio time in New York City. These New York record company executives are named Sheridan and Wright—names of the two U.S. Army generals who fought the Spokane people and slaughtered thousands of Spokane horses in cold blood. Chess and Checkers, the young backup singers from the Flathead reservation, begin to have their doubts about the price Coyote Springs may have to pay for success, but Thomas, Victor and Junior know only that rock and roll stardom is calling them. They've got only one more number to go and they'll "bingo big"; all they have to do is make the demo tape in New York! Suddenly the pressure is on:

We have to come back as heroes. They won't let us back on this reservation if we ain't heroes. Unless we're rock stars. We already left once, and all the Spokanes hate us for it…. What if we screw up in New York and every Indian everywhere hates us? What if they won't let us on any reservation in the country?

Alexie may use an image from Indian culture, the gambler's sticks, but the meaning is clear: "If an Indian chose the correct hand, he won everything, he won all the sticks. If an Indian chose wrong, he never got to play again. Coyote Springs had only one dream, one chance to choose the correct hand."

The atmosphere of the recording studio, however, leaves a lot to be desired. The fiery Sheridan says of Coyote Springs and their music: "They don't need to be good. They just need to make money. I don't give a fuck if they're artists. Where are all the executives who signed artists? They're working at radio stations now, right?" Not even the Devil guitar can endure this. Coyote Springs is playing along just fine when suddenly Robert Johnson's haunted guitar twists itself out of Victor's hands and spoils the take. Victor loses his temper and tears apart the recording studio. Coyote Springs is finished and so is the dream.

With guys like Sheridan and Wright running the music business, the Devil guitar probably does these young Indians a favor by breaking up the recording session. But this is one area of the novel that is a bit fuzzy. There is ambivalence throughout toward the guitar, toward a talent or gift that consumes individuals and calls them away from the community. Alexie's version of Robert Johnson, on the run to escape the music, his hands burned and scarred by the guitar, casts an ominous light on talent. A gift for making music or for writing sets you apart from others, family and friends, whether you want this distance or not. Alexie wrestles with the conundrum: Did their gift for music kill Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin or did the music sustain them and lengthen their time in this world? Is it better to throw away your guitar or word processor and live an ordinary life? Will you be happier?

Coyote Springs' members return to the Spokane reservation, but everything has been changed by their brush with success. Junior commits suicide, as he probably always meant to. His ghost visits Victor and says he just got tired of living. The ghost helps Victor throw away the liquor bottle, but when Victor tries to get a job to save himself, his own uncle, the pompous tribal chairman, writes him off. Victor seems bound to join Junior in the other world. Only Thomas and Chess, who are in love, and Checkers, who loves them, survive the crushed dream. Again there is a whiff of ambivalence about success in the "mainstream" world. Big Mom hadn't wanted them to go to New York in the first place—the implication being that music should be made for people, for the community, not for record companies.

Yet it is clear that having a shot at success means a great deal. Thomas is infuriated when he learns that the only musicians who get a big recording contract and realize the American Dream are the two young white women, Betty and Veronica, who once sang backup for Coyote Springs. The record company executives Sheridan and Wright decided they needed "a more reliable kind" of Indian. "Basically, we need Indians such as yourselves," they tell the two young white women, who reply, "But we ain't that much Indian." "You're Indian enough, right? I mean, all it takes is a little bit, right? Who's to say you are not Indian enough?… What it comes down to is this. You play for this company as Indians. Or you don't play at all. I mean, who needs another white-girl folk group?" When Betty and Veronica send Thomas a copy of their first album, he furiously destroys the tape.

Yet Alexie's characters are young, still learning; with the blessing of Big Mom and the citizens of Wellpinit, the remaining former members of the rock band decide to leave the reservation for a while. The town of Spokane isn't far from the reservation, and the phone company is hiring—just as it might be. If we Indians do not "represent" our communities as we see them, then others, the likes of Sheridan and Wright, will concoct fantasies that pass for truth. Unlike the bucolic idylls of small-town America pawned off by, say, Garrison Keillor, Alexie's portrayal of the reservation town of Wellpinit and its people is in the tradition of communities evoked in The Scarlet Letter, Babbitt, Sanctuary and The Last Picture Show. These small towns are like the old cat who eats her kittens.

It is difficult not to imagine Reservation Blues as a reflection of the ambivalence that a young, gifted author might have about "success" in the ruthless, greed-driven world of big publishing, where executives very much resemble cavalry generals. He may feel the same pressure the members of Coyote Springs felt to come home to the reservation a "hero." At the same time, small communities, Indian and non-Indian alike, are ambivalent about the success of one of their own. There is bound to be a bit of jealousy, and maybe even those who mutter that they prefer anonymity for their community.

Make no mistake: Alexie's talent is immense and genuine, and needs no Devil's typewriter. The power of his writing rises out of the Spokane River and the Spokane earth where it is sweetened with the music of Robert Johnson, Hank Williams, Elvis Presley, Janis Joplin and Jimi Hendrix. On this big Indian reservation we call "the United States," Sherman Alexie is one of the best writers we have.

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This section contains 2,173 words
(approx. 8 pages at 300 words per page)
Buy the Critical Review by Leslie Marmon Silko
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