A mixed-bag collection of nine stories from the popular American (Spokane Coeur d’Alene) Indian author of such breakthrough successes as The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven (1993) and Reservation Blues (1995).
Alexie has been known to scorn the politically correct contemporary appellation “Native American,” and this volume rather overindulges what appears to be its author’s sardonic reaction to his own celebrity and perceived exoticism (“Strangely enough,” observes the Sherman Alexie–like narrator of the bitterly funny “Class,” “there were aphrodisiacal benefits from claiming to be descended from ritual cannibals”). A few of these tales feel like understandably unpublished early work (“South by Southwest,” a flagrantly manic farce that laboriously satirizes white liberal guilt, and “Indian Country,” about a successful writer’s cultural and sexual alienation, are especially suspect). Even at his best, Alexie doesn’t construct; he riffs: to splendid effect in “The Sin Eaters,” a rich fantasy of ethnic conflict, incest, and genocide laden with vivid literary and biblical allusions and eye-popping metaphors (“They’re going to take the tomorrow out of our bones”); “Dear John Wayne,” a cultural anthropologist’s interview with the aged Indian woman who claims she was the eponymous screen star’s lover (during the filming of The Searchers); and “Saint Junior,” a mischievous lampooning of affirmative-action programs. Alexie digs still deeper in rock-hard portrayals of a volatile “mixed” married couple (“Assimilation”); a son preparing to bid his dying father farewell (“One Good Man”); and the surprise-filled title story, about an Indian intellectual who has strayed uncomfortably away from his origins, and is reconnected with them after he picks up a menacing hitchhiker.
Alexie knows he’s contemporary literature’s “Indian du jour” (a phrase he has often used), and isn’t quite sure how he feels about it. That ambivalence gives his writing a salutary charge of energy, making him one of our most challenging, interesting, and promising young writers.