American in-between

Oh, to be young, Indian and conflicted. In case you didn’t get the memo, Sherman Alexie doesn’t buy into the “Native American” label, so don’t read his work with hopes of mythopoetic vision quests. Alexie is a wry, corrosive wit and an interrogator of what it means to be Indian, half-Indian and struggling in the American in-between.

A Spokane Indian, Alexie carries under his belt numerous poetry collections, two novels (Reservation Blues and Indian Killer), several prestigious literary awards and now a third collection of short stories. Last year, he directed a horribly indulgent film called The Business of Fancydancing that appeared at Sundance and promptly powwowed its way into oblivion. But don’t hold that against him.

Martin Scorsese once said that movies shouldn’t be about plots but about moments. Similarly, Alexie’s new stories aren’t quite as memorable as his insanely original snippets of cultural criticism, live wordplay and joie de vivre that remind us that despite this summer’s 24 new reality TV shows, life has not gone entirely stale.

But, like his last collection of stories, Ten Little Indians is worthy and focuses on urban Indians, some blue-collar, some reservation virtuosos and others byproducts of biracial parenting. All his characters are caught in the contradictions of a legacy that has one foot in the reservation and another in the big city—usually Seattle.

In the opening story, “The Search Engine,” a young Spokane (Alexie’s characters are rarely of another tribe) college student named Corliss becomes obsessed with an Indian poet named Harlan Atwater. He is the only Spokane Indian she’s known to have published a book of poetry, and so, on her quest for undergraduate direction, she finds him—fetid, unkempt and living with his parents in Seattle. An Indian raised by white, urban parents, he faked his way into the 1970s Seattle coffeehouse scene with his phony stories of life on the res. “Indian is easy to fake,” he tells her.

In “The Life and Times of Estelle Walks Above,” a dialogue between a mother and a son, a man rambles on about his loose-cannon mother, who forced him to read Our Bodies, Ourselves when he was 13. Alexie writes a lot about mothers, about men on the vanguard of gender-role reversal. Perhaps because it’s injected with so much humor and sincerity, it never comes off as feminist pandering. As the narrator in this story says, “Indian men are the most feminized on the planet. I am an Indian man, with your prior approval, hear me roar.”

Here’s his struggle with his mother’s excessive understanding: “Why can’t you ignore me sometimes like all of the other moms and dads? Why can’t you just give me a pair of scissors and tell me to run, boy, run?”

There’s no shame in liking Alexie because he’s Indian. And that’s not some sort of pompous white male nod to so-called marginal voices. It’s not that his tribe makes Alexie talented—duh—but that he throws a monkey wrench into a common, liberal malaise. Thanks to cheap airfare and other manifestations of ubiquitous consumerism, it often appears that American culture has been homogenized beyond the pale of redemption. So, whenever a book or a movie comes along that acknowledges regional distinctions in an authentic way, it suddenly makes us feel, if not proud, then at least fascinated to be an American.

Alexie does just that—and a bit more. It’s in his energy, his unique language and his excitement to figure out how life is lived, be it with overbearing, feminist mothers; fake poets; or the burden of trying to articulate what being a modern-day urban Indian is all about.