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WAR DANCES by Sherman Alexie

WAR DANCES

By Sherman Alexie

Pub Date: Oct. 1st, 2009
ISBN: 978-0-8021-1919-3
Publisher: Grove

From prolific Alexie (Face, 2009, etc.), a collection of stories, poems and short works that defy categorization.

It’s wildly uneven: A few pieces drawn from his experiences as a member of the Spokane tribe rank with the author’s best, but much of what surrounds them feels like filler. Of the 23 selections, the longest and best is the 36-page title story. Sixteen chapters, some as short as two paragraphs, connect the dots between a hospitalized father’s fatal alcoholism and the nonmalignant brain tumor of his son, a 41-year-old writer accused in one hilarious incident of subjecting another Indian to racist stereotyping. Alexie frequently uses plainspoken language in first-person narratives to deal with ethical ambiguities—“to find a moral center,” as he writes in “Breaking and Entering.” That tale shows the narrator, a film editor, editing the facts to fit his story, only to feel victimized by the media’s editing of an incident that changes his life. Other pieces don’t work as well. “The Senator’s Son” is a cliché-riddled, credulity-straining parable of forgiveness concerning Republican hypocrisy and violent homophobia. “Fearful Symmetry” teases the reader with a protagonist whose name (Sherwin Polatkin) and description (“a hot young short-story writer and poet and first-time screenwriter”) both suggest an authorial stand-in, yet it has nothing more interesting to say about blurring the distinction between memoir and fiction than to ask, “What is lying but a form of storytelling?” “The Ballad of Paul Nothingness” ambitiously attempts to encompass the mysteries of desire, a critique of capitalism and the power of popular music. The latter also provides inspiration for “Ode to Mix Tapes,” the collection’s best poem; most of the other verses are slapdash and singsong.

The author’s considerable talent is only intermittently in evidence here.