Sunday, May 20, 2012

War Dances, by Sherman Alexie

Sherman Alexie is a keen observer of human relationships--most particularly men's relationships (with women, with their fathers, with their children)--and a writer who can make the reader think and laugh simultaneously. War Dances, a collection of poems, short stories, and prose pieces so brief I don't know what to call them, is a fine reflection of his work.

Alexie is Native American, and many of his characters are Native American; their stories shed light on the Native American experience and poke fun at Indian stereotypes, but they're never narrowly about one group--they illuminate humanity. In one of the book's early stories, "Breaking and Entering," the narrator is a film editor who works at home. Once afternoon, he hears someone breaking into his basement. He grabs a baseball bat and runs downstairs to confront the intruder--an African American teenager. As the boy rushes toward him, the narrator hits him with the bat--and kills him. While not charged with a crime, the man struggles with his own guilt and the way in which the boy's parents and the media frame him as "just another white man killing a black child" when he is, in fact, Native American. Yet the narrator and the reader recognize--perhaps too late--that the distinction is meaningless.

One of my favorite pieces in the book in "The Ballad of Paul Nonetheless," which is the story of a man (married but separated) who is so gobsmacked by the sight of a beautiful woman striding through O'Hare in a pair of red Pumas that he launched into an analysis of American culture, fashion, popular music, and the insignificance of diversity in the American population. While listening to Paul's analysis, I was thinking "This might be the perfect story." Then Paul gets out of his head and runs after the woman--and the story dropped a notch or two from perfection, but was still wonderful.

Two stories--the title story and "The Senator's Son"--deal with troubled father-son relationships, reminding us that beneath the pain there is love. While women are not prominent in Alexie's stories, their absence does not signal an absence of regard. The grieving widow in the story "Salt" is drawn with great care and sympathy--though that doesn't stop her from seriously freaking out the story's 19-year-old protagonist.

My descriptions probably don't sound like the stories offer much humor--but I assure you that they do. As with the work of the most brilliant stand-ups, much of the humor is dark and self-deprecating, but you will laugh when reading War Dances.

I listened to an audio version of the book, read by the author, and while I enjoyed his presentation, at times I wished I could see the words on the page (especially with the poems). Nonetheless, I would recommend this book in any format.

Favorite passages:
Does a healing song lose its power if the singer has no talent?

I would always feel closest to the man who had most disappointed me.

He sang without irony for he was a twenty-first-century American who'd been taught to mourn his small and large losses by singing Top 40 hits.

(There are many wonderful passages in the book, but they are difficult to locate in the audio version!)

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