Sherman Alexie | Critical Review by Abigail Davis

This literature criticism consists of approximately 3 pages of analysis & critique of Sherman Alexie.
This section contains 847 words
(approx. 3 pages at 300 words per page)
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Critical Review by Abigail Davis

SOURCE: A review of Reservation Blues, in The Bloomsbury Review, Vol. 15, No. 4, July-August, 1995, p. 16.

Below, Davis praises the universality of Alexie's literary works.

This first novel by Sherman Alexie [Reservation Blues] comes as close to helping a non-Native American understand the modern Indian experience as any attempt in current literature. The reader closes the book feeling troubled, hurt, hopeful, profoundly thoughtful, and somehow exhausted, as if the quest of the characters had been a personal experience.

Alexie, a 28-year-old Spokane/Coeur d'Alene Indian raised on the Spokane Indian Reservation, is a powerfully prolific writer whose earlier works have received much attention. The Business of Fancydancing (1992), a collection of poems and stories, was named a New York Times Notable Book for 1992; Alexie is a citation winner for the PEN/Hemingway Award for Best First Book of Fiction and winner of the 1994 Lila Wallace-Reader's Digest Writers' Award.

Reservation Blues chronicles the career of an Indian rock group called Coyote Springs. The three male members, Thomas Builds-the-Fire, Junior Polatkin, and Victor Joseph, are from the Spokane Indian Reservation in Wellpinit; two women vocalists, Chess and Checkers Warm Water, are members of the Flathead tribe. When, for a brief time, two white groupies (who are into Indian men rather than musicians) join the band as backup singers, all hell breaks loose. The group evolves rather than forms, and with little or no direction or planning moves from playing reservation bars to a club in Seattle to a potential recording contract in New York. Readers of Alexie's previous collections of poems and stories—The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven (1994), First Indian on the Moon (1994), and The Business of Fancydancing (1992)—will recognize some familiar characters, and will most significantly be alert to Alexie's unmistakable narrative voice, which, as always, is laced with humor and anger and driven by great intelligence.

As musicians, Coyote Springs puts the "a" in amateur. Their burgeoning skills and subsequent success are due to a mystical guitar—clearly a tool of the devil—that was once owned by blues legend Robert Johnson, who was said to be murdered in 1938. Johnson allegedly sold his soul Faust-style for his talent, and his appearance as a living character in Alexie's story is significant. Johnson is still trying to "lose" the guitar and escape its grip. In Alexie's version of the Faust legend, the devil tells Johnson that he has to give up "whatever you love the most" in exchange for superhuman musical ability. Johnson sacrifices his freedom (not his soul), and until the guitar finds a new "owner" (in this case, Victor Joseph, lead guitarist for Coyote Springs), Johnson is trapped. Alexie gives the theme of evil as a pandemic and enduring force a new twist when Victor cuts his own deal with the devil and, presented with the same choice as Johnson, sacrifices his best friend. Unlike those who addressed the theme before him—authors Marlowe and Goethe, composers Berlioz and Liszt—Alexie seems to find the loss of freedom and friendship more serious and dangerous than the loss of one's own soul; or perhaps we are meant to understand that the three are intrinsically interconnected, symbiotic, and that the human experience is more complex than even Goethe thought.

Alexie is a plot magician, and the actual story of the musical escapades of Coyote Springs is but a fraction of this complex book. The narrative contains traditional dialogue along with songs and poems, dreams, visions, newspaper excerpts, charismatic characters, an Indian (and, to my mind, improved) version of the Faust legend, several well-placed whacks at missionary and Catholic Christianity, as well as some riotously funny scenes. The collective impact of these various narrative devices is startling; layer after layer, we are pulled into the fractured experiences and spiritual lives of the characters. We (and here I speak as an outsider to the experiences that Alexie writes about so vividly) are jarred into any number of acknowledgments: that reservation life includes a cruel Catch-22, whereby the people who leave the reservation to break the cycle of dependency on the U.S. government are considered traitors by those who stay; that prejudices between tribes are just as virulent and hostile as the racist attitudes that infect other areas of American society; that life for mixed-blood children is the same hell on the reservation as it is in most other places for most races. "Your son will be beaten because he's a half-breed," Chess says to a vision of a white woman and half-Indian child.

No matter what he does, he'll never be Indian enough. Other Indians won't accept him…. Don't you see?… Those quarter-blood and eighth-blood grandchildren will find out they're Indian and torment the rest of us real Indians…. [They] will get all the Indian jobs, all the Indian chances, because they look white. Because they're safer.

Alexie casts a wide net, and in Reservation Blues his narrative style is a highly effective combination of all the prose forms. In chronicling the pain and progress of one five-person, mixed-tribe rock band, Alexie has, miraculously, managed to speak to all of us.

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This section contains 847 words
(approx. 3 pages at 300 words per page)
Buy the Critical Review by Abigail Davis
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