When I came across Sherman Alexie’s 2007 book The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, I was surprised to see the controversial word ‘Indian’ where I might have expected the legal and technical term ‘Native American’, which I have dutifully preferred since I was a spotty schoolgirl. But that is one of the achievements of Alexie’s 2010 War Dances, a PEN/Faulkner Prize-winning selection of short stories, poetry and imagined interlocutions: supplanting outdated, outsider, collectivist narratives with contemporary, personal and ambivalent offerings.
In pursuing these perspectives, War Dances crouches bewildered observations of wrongdoing on the heavy haunches of realism. In the opening poem, ‘The Limited’, a spectator is witness to a driver’s efforts to intentionally hit a dog and writes a poem about it when he gets home. Bemused or horrified at his passivity – is it due to cowardice or selfishness or indecision? – he contemplates: ‘Why do poets think / They can change the world? / The only life I can save / Is my own’.
Deciding whether to act, and how, persists as a high concern throughout the collection, and impulses that strike in a particular direction have unpredictable and even ambiguous results. In ‘Breaking and Entering’, George Wilson, a film editor armed with his son’s baseball bat, attacks an intruder, a black teenager, who dies. Wilson is excoriated in the press for the crime – ‘another black boy killed by a white man’, until he reveals to the press that he is not white – he is a Spokane Indian – becoming ‘the most hated man in Seattle. And the most beloved.’ Wilson’s stab at clarity is not proved worthless, but even worse, with the consequences of an already tragic death complicated by the cross-purposes claims of racial agency.
‘Another Proclamation’ further probes the fraught history of the United States, telling how thirty-eight Sioux, among other ‘uprisers’, were sentenced to execution a mere year before the Emancipation Proclamation, which in law freed the majority of North America’s slaves. This piece, like many in War Dances, is more formally inventive than might be expected within the traditional short-story collection aesthetic. The first eight words hang from the top of the page like a noose, erupting into an ironic, dialogic slab of what could be historical brochure copy: ‘Where did they execute them? Mankato, Minnesota.’ Alexie’s direct address has a powerful effect, particularly when it builds to a lyric, rhetorical ending: ‘Can you imagine the cacophony of thirty-eight different death songs?’
Many of Alexie’s protagonists are Indian and male – burdened by their heritage, they fight being prostrated by it, sometimes with self-deprecating humour. In the title story, a Spokane Indian man is tending to his alcoholic, diabetic father (‘natural causes for an Indian’), whose diseased feet have been removed. At the hospital, he meets a Lummi Indian who explains that his father has lately started an ersatz Indian tradition, ‘waving eagle feathers around’ his sister, who is about to give birth. ‘I mean, come on, I’m a loser’, he laughs, ‘My whole family is filled with losers.’
Though Alexie excels at lightness, he cannot always tether it to a pathos that would both anchor and substantiate the work. This is no more apparent than in ‘The Senator’s Son’, in which the son of a Republican running for the State House assaults his childhood friend, who is gay. Good jokes abound in the dilemma of how a Republican teen should out himself to his equally Republican friend: ‘he’d thought about telling me while we were engaged in some overtly masculine activity, like shouting out “I’m gay!” while we were butchering a hog.’ But flat spurs of dialogue – ‘This is going to ruin everything. You’ve ruined me with this, this thing, do you understand that?’ – deny the father and son real emotional standing. The plot also begs comparison with Jonathan Franzen’s ‘Agreeable’ (later a chapter of his high-profile novel Freedom), in which the daughter of a state assemblywoman (though a ‘professional Democrat’ this time) is raped. This family talk around and withhold and cross-examine each other (‘Just checking,’ he said. ‘You do know the actual legal definition’). With his gift for lateral detail and his ear for natural talk, Franzen more successfully illuminates familial clashes of interest.
Nevertheless, War Dances is a unique collection that extrapolates identity from the amalgam of family baggage, race relations and everyday vagaries. Its spontaneity and wit add a welcome dimension to such storytelling, as does its variety of forms – songs, questions and conversations that offer varied explorations of character, but not fixed portraits. That War Dances effortlessly runs the gamut from poem to uncategorisable cri de coeur to short story shows a reader that no adherence to form is more important than the stories Alexie wants to tell them.
Estelle Tang is Online Editor for Kill Your Darlings.