Tales of dualities within tribes


Sherman Alexie writes of the human experience in 31 stories old and new.

In The Search Engine, one of the 15 previously published stories among the 31 included in Sherman Alexie’s Blasphemy: New and Selected Stories, reclusive poet Harlan Atwater declares in an interview: “I’m trying to help people understand Indians. I’m trying to make the world a better place, full of more love and understanding.” Later in the story, Atwater claims that he was a naive kid when he made that statement. Now, 30 years post-interview, he considers this earlier self to be a charlatan who used poetry primarily to attract pretty women and to reinvent himself as a romantic but fraudulent hero.

Since Alexie began publishing poetry and prose 20 years ago, he has been celebrated for his acerbic, funny, politically charged stories and poems, but in The Search Engine, first published in Ten Little Indians, his gentler, more introspective side is touchingly underscored in the interaction between the self-mocking Atwater and the story’s other main character, 19-year-old Corliss Joseph, a college student of Coeur d’Alene Indian descent who discovers Atwater’s only published poetry collection in her university’s library.

Soon after reading his book, Corliss travels across the state to find him in Seattle, despite his wish to be left alone. Atwater is also Coeur d’Alene, but his personal history is more complicated than Corliss’, and what she eventually learns about Atwater’s upbringing leads to questions she has trouble answering about her own identity as an Indian woman pursuing a college degree, the only member of her large family who has left home to do so.

Tenderness, along with passion — governable or otherwise — are elements as pervasive in Alexie’s impressive body of work as is his subversive humor, his grief and his outrage over the exploitation and neglect of indigenous populations in the United States.

“You underestimate us,” his narrators often state, tacitly or not. “But OK, we underestimate ourselves too.”

Most of the stories in this new collection are informed by Alexie’s interest in the dualities that lead to complications and quandaries in every human life, especially those related to identity as a social and racial construct, assimilation and tradition, hetero- and homosexuality, fidelity and adultery.

If you’re looking for happy endings, not surprisingly, there aren’t many, but if literary fiction in its purest form is meant to be an accurate reflection of human experience and its inevitable ambiguities, Alexie skillfully offers us this in Blasphemy.

In one of the strongest new stories, Midnight Basketball, Big Ed, a preposterously untalented ballplayer whose friends have put up with his ineptness on the court for years, is secretly observed missing shot after shot late one night by Joey, his friend and most frustrated teammate. Before now, Joey believed that Big Ed was oblivious to his own deficiencies and that possibly he reveled in them.

In the book’s first story, Cry Cry Cry, the narrator is also ambushed by revelatory and contradictory feelings. By taking an unpopular stance against his sociopathic cousin, Junior, after he commits a monstrous crime, the narrator believes himself a traitor to Junior and their tribe, even as he recognizes that he has probably saved others from his cousin’s violent tendencies. The narrator soon begins dancing at powwows, partly as an act of atonement, and tells us, “I was dancing for my soul and for the soul of my tribe. I was dancing for what we Indians used to be and who we might become again.”

In Assimilation, Do You Know Where I Am? and Faith, the main characters contemplate other offenses, adultery in particular, and a few commit them, but Alexie resists moralizing about the choices that reveal the true, nuanced character of his tormented husbands and wives. Most cataclysms are internal, the author appears to be telling us, our mistakes and regrets chiefly borne in silence.

One of the most nuanced and haunting stories in the collection is Scenes From a Life. In this spare, fragmented story, a 54-year-old white woman remembers how a brief affair she had many years earlier with an American Indian boy several years her junior has shaped the course of her life. The narrator’s voice is elegiac, somber, ultimately unforgettable. What Alexie makes poignantly clear in the stories he has written in his long and robust career is that we cannot choose whom we fall in love with, nor can we choose who, fundamentally, we are. Whether we can choose who we become, however, remains an open question.

Christine Sneed reviewed this book for The San Francisco Chronicle.

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