Alienation, second-class citizenship, and revivifying pride in family and heritage—these are the recurring themes in the popular author’s third collection (The Toughest Indian in the World, 2000, etc.).
Several of the characters in these nine stories are “Native American gentry”: upwardly mobile western US Indians (most of them members of the Spokane tribe of Washington State) who’ve moved uneasily into the white world—like the half-black, half-Spokane bureaucrat who finds the old prejudices awaiting him in a “Lawyer’s League” basketball game; or the middle-class Seattle salesman whose sense of security and accomplishment is disturbed by a conversation with an Ethiopian immigrant cabdriver. Alexie’s penchant for oddball premises and bizarre narrative twists can misfire, as in a rambling tale about a woman paralegal who survives a terrorist suicide bombing and the planned seduction of her Indian rescuer (“Can I Get a Witness?”); or lapse into comic monologue, as in an adult son’s mixed memories of growing up with his energetic social-activist single mom (“The Life and Times of Estelle Walks Above”). But the volume contains three marvelous tales: “The Search Engine,” about an intellectually voracious Spokane college girl’s pursuit of a long-inactive Native American poet, casts a bleakly illuminating spotlight on the complexities and disillusionments of the examined life; “What You Pawn I Will Redeem” is an irresistible picaresque in which a homeless Spokane, discovering his late grandmother’s fancy-dancing costume (her “powwow regalia”) in a pawnshop window, undertakes a mock-epic “quest” to reclaim the outfit (“I want to be a hero....I want to win it back like a knight”). Even better is “What Ever Happened to Frank Snake Church?,” about a middle-aged former basketball star who honors the memories of his dead parents by rededicating himself to the game of his youth.
Comedy, pathos, heartfelt characterizations, and agendas transformed into thoughtful narratives: Alexie’s strongest book in years.