Sherman Alexie is a poet (The Business of Fancydancing, 1993), and the author of two novels. The Toughest Indian in the World is his second collection of short fiction. His first collection, The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven (1993), was the basis for the movie, Smoke Signals.
Alexie, a Spokane Coeur d'Alene Indian, was selected by The New Yorker as one of the best American fiction writers under 40. A veteran performance poet, he is also a two-time winner and current champion of the Taos Poetry Circus World Heavyweight Championship Poetry Bout, a very popular poetry slam held each June in Taos.
Here are nine durable stories that confront the tough realities of living on and off "the rez." Alexie is a powerful storyteller. Time ("Indian Time," that is) stretches in Alexie's hands: the stories read at a brisk, unhurried pace, taking time to get the most out of a scene like describing a landscape, or frying bread.
To some readers who retain the idealistic belief that we might all be color-blind someday, Alexie may seem a bit race-obsessed. He attacks racist idiocy and history book prejudices. A true scrapper, he uses the catch-'em-off guard approach: redirect their attention, then one good punch under the belt. And if that doesn't work, there's always the power of silence:
... I learned to be silent in the presence of white people.
The silence is not about hate or pain or fear. Indians just like to believe that white people will vanish, perhaps explode into smoke, if they are ignored enough times.
There's an old fury going on here. Mix it up with rigorous honesty, swift humor, and you might have a fight on your hands.
There's a reason Alexie has an attitude. American popular culture really recognizes only two major Native American profiles in literature: the warrior and the shaman. Alexie fights these stereotypes with all he's got: a tough, clear-eyed, contemporary wisdom.
He writes about a native culture whose traditions, such as pow-wows and oral storytelling, have been replaced by casinos and cablevision.
His cast of characters are urban Indians who live in two worlds: a familial, tribal life on the reservation, and a fairly affluent but often hostile white middle-class existence.
"Class" is a strange and wonderful tale of a Spokane Indian lawyer, a successful urban professional, who is married to a white woman. He discovers that the gulf between him and the Indians he blindly seeks out is as wide -- wider even -- than the gulf he continually re-discovers between himself and the white middle-class people he lives among.
The first story, "Assimilation," is about the contradictions of human relationships. A Coeur d'Alene woman deliberately cheats on her white husband only to rediscover her true affection for him. The story opens: "Regarding love, marriage and sex, both Shakespeare and Sitting Bull knew the only truth: treaties get broken."
Alexie breaks the rules and gives us a new definition of tough in the title story. The story follows a young Spokane Indian who works as a reporter at an all-white newspaper in Seattle. He's "headed down Highway 2 to write some damn pleasant story about some damn pleasant people." He picks up a tough Lummi prizefighter who is hitchhiking back to the rez:
"You're a fighter, enit?"
I threw in the "enit," a reservation colloquialism, because I wanted the fighter to know that I had grown up on the rez, in the woods, with every Indian in the world. ...
"Who'd you fight last?" I asked, trying to concentrate on the road."
"Some Flathead," he said. "In Arlee. He was supposed to be the toughest Indian in the world."
"Nah, no way. Wasn't even close. Wasn't even tougher than me."
Reporter and drifter end up spending the night together at the Pony Soldier Motel. Alexie's defiant humor always finds its way into even the darkest moments:
... Inside the room, in a generic watercolor hanging above the bed, the U.S. Cavalry was kicking the crap out of a band of renegade Indians.
"What tribe you think they are?" I asked the fighter.
"All of them," he said.
Alexie praises women and familial loyalty in a hilarious and amorous story called "Dear John Wayne." It's about one very sassy 118-year-old Spokane actress (she was an extra in The Searchers). In the story she is interviewed by a whippersnapper (yeah, he's white) reporter who wants to know about pow-wow dancing. Instead, she hits him with a story about losing her virginity to John ("Call me Marion, please") Wayne.
There is some fundamentally human will to find brotherhood beyond ourselves, to build significance out of common symbols, to make something that will endure.
The stories are adventurous, heartwarming, hard as nails. They are rich human documents, and this brave and serious book should tough it out on bookshelves for years to come.