Sherman Alexie | Critical Review by Frederick Busch

This literature criticism consists of approximately 4 pages of analysis & critique of Sherman Alexie.
This section contains 1,144 words
(approx. 4 pages at 300 words per page)
Buy the Critical Review by Frederick Busch

Critical Review by Frederick Busch

SOURCE: "Longing for Magic," in The New York Times Book Review, Vol. C, No. 29, July 16, 1995, pp. 9-10.

In the following review of Reservation Blues, Busch comments on narrative structures in the work.

To read about Native American reservation life is usually to read about illness and despair. Fiction originating from that life is also, of course, capable of wild happiness and celebration; but the darkness is a fact of life and art. James Welch, in his superb novel Winter in the Blood, observes his characters' suffering from the corner of his narrative eye; Reynolds Price, in his moving novella Walking Lessons, confronts the sorrow directly. Sherman Alexie, whose 1993 collection, The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven, was justly applauded, writes about characters who are squarely in the middle of reservation life but who report it to us from a point of view that is simultaneously tangential to the mainstream of that life as well as part of its sad, slow rhythms.

Here, for example, from his first novel, Reservation Blues, is Mr. Alexie's description of the Indians' mythic coyote "a trickster whose bag of tricks contains permutations of love, hate, weather, chance, laughter and tears, e.g., Lucille Ball." He catches the ancient and the contemporary, the solemn and the self-mocking, at once; he evokes dreary days of watching black-and-white television reruns in a place of "poverty, suicide, alcoholism," where "Indian Health only gave out dental floss and condoms." When Mr. Alexie writes at his best, he creates stinging commentary, and he shows his determination to make you uncertain whether you want to laugh or cry.

His characters long for a traditional magic that is endangered, crushed under hundreds of years of bad faith and bad luck and bad management. As Thomas Builds-the-Fire, in Reservation Blues, reports to us, "Nobody believed in anything on this reservation." "More than anything," Mr. Alexie says of Thomas, "he wanted a story to heal the wounds, but he knew that his stories never healed anything." Mr. Alexie's humor, like Thomas's, is a shield against aggression from within and without. Like Mr. Alexie, Thomas dreams and tells deeply moving domestic stories. And he insists upon bearing witness, in quiet, powerful ways, to the sad, diminished life of so many of the Spokane and other American Indians. Like Thomas, Mr. Alexie wants "the songs, the stories, to save everybody."

Mr. Alexie means everybody. He writes of love affairs and marriages between Indians and whites. He salutes the very un-Indian Franz Kafka in a short story about Thomas Builds-the-Fire included in The Lone Ranger and Tonto by using as its epigraph the opening lines of The Trial. And when you read Reservation Blues, you will think of Kafka, perhaps his stories "The Bucket Rider" and "The Judgment." You might also be reminded of the character Milkman Dead in Toni Morrison's novel Song of Solomon and those little, light-footed Jews of Bernard Malamud and Marc Chagall. All are capable of suggesting to us dreamy flight while reminding us of the great specific gravity of their world.

Reservation Blues takes many characters from The Lone Ranger and Tonto, as well as characters we've not met before, and connects their stories of Spokane reservation life. Thomas Builds-the-Fire may be said to be the protagonist, but it is his people who are at the center of the narrative and, indeed, no chapter is carried by a single character's consciousness. One moves from the point of view of Thomas to that of his friend Victor to that of Chess, the woman he loves, to that of Father Arnold, the doubting reservation priest, to that of Robert Johnson, the great African-American bluesman, who has faked his death to escape the Gentleman—the Devil, to whom he sold his soul for the ability to make great music—and who seeks the wisdom of Big Mom, who is the reservation's repository of Indian lore. (She can even make 200 pieces of fry bread from 100, a good equivalent to the parable of fishes and loaves.) Johnson abandons his guitar, and Victor takes it up and plays it wonderfully; so Victor, Thomas (who sings) and their friend Junior (who plays the drums) form Coyote Springs, a rock-and-roll band. Mr. Alexie provides the lyrics of their songs, which aren't any better or worse than other rock songs, although their subject matter is Indian life.

The story connects dozens of smaller stories about these characters. Also connecting the fragments are dreams. "Indians were supposed to have visions and receive messages from their dreams," Junior says. "All the Indians on television had visions that told them exactly what to do." At his best, Mr. Alexie refuses to be pious or to pretend that he is writing anything other than sad reflections on a people's loss. He is funny, he is perceptive and he knows how to stir us in large and small ways.

When he goes wrong, it is because he tries to suggest that a rock band can bear the metaphorical weight of an entire culture—not even Roddy Doyle's novel The Commitments sustained such a concept—and because he uses repetition as a substitute for narrative structure. Early in the novel, we are given a story about Big Mom, who is magically alive 134 years before we meet her and who witnesses a terrible slaughter of Indians' horses by the United States Cavalry. We are told that a colt "fell to the grass of the clearing, to the sidewalk outside a reservation tavern, to the cold, hard coroner's table in a Veterans Hospital." If referred to once in a story in that way, such an image provides an awful and telling moment, and the event can support the burden of suggestion. Mr. Alexie, either not trusting that we will understand the significance, which he has already underscored, or believing that the metaphorical value will increase with repetition and will serve as structure, has the slaughtered horses screaming many times, often as the sole event in a paragraph—"The horses screamed"—but the freighted words carry no additional weight, and they don't connote more than they did earlier. A couple of white singers named Betty and Veronica—get it?—sell out with ease to a recording company, but Coyote Springs has far more difficulty. Executives of the company, named Sheridan and Wright by Mr. Alexie, after men who planned and executed the genocide of American Indians, call for liquor to celebrate their discovery of the band: "The horses screamed." We do get it.

Though there is wonderful humor and profound sorrow in this novel, and brilliant renditions of each, there is not enough structure to carry the dreams and tales that Mr. Alexie needs to portray and that we need to read. His talent may be for the short form. But the talent is real, and it is very large, and I will gratefully read whatever he writes, in whatever form.

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This section contains 1,144 words
(approx. 4 pages at 300 words per page)
Buy the Critical Review by Frederick Busch
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