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What it Means to Be an American

Alexie collection explores the American in-between



Oh to be young, Indian and conflicted. In case you didn't get the memo, Sherman Alexie doesn't buy into the "Native American" label so don't read these stories with hopes of mythopoetic vision quests. Alexie is a wry, corrosive wit, an interrogator of what it means to be Indian, half-Indian, and struggling in the American in-between.

A Spokane Indian, Alexie carries under his belt numerous poetry collections, two novels (Reservation Blues and Indian Killer) several prestigious literary awards and now a third collection of short stories. Last year, he directed a horribly indulgent film called The Business of Fancydancing that appeared at Sundance and promptly pow-wowed its way into oblivion. But don't hold that against him.

Martin Scorsese once said that movies shouldn't be about plots, but about moments. Similarly, Alexie's stories aren't as memorable as his insanely original snippets of cultural criticism, wordplay and a joi de vivre that reminds us that despite this summer's 24 new reality TV shows, life has not gone entirely stale.

Like his last collection, The Toughest Indian in the World, Ten Little Indians focuses on urban Indians, some blue collar, some reservation virtuosos, and other byproducts of biracial parenting. All his characters are caught in the contradictions of a legacy that has one foot in the reservation and another in the big city -- usually Seattle.

In the opening story, "The Search Engine," a young Spokane (Alexie's characters are rarely of another tribe) college student named Corliss becomes obsessed with an Indian poet named Harlan Atwater. He is the only Spokane Indian she's known to have published a book of poetry, and so on her quest for undergraduate direction she finds him, fetid unkempt and living with his parents in Seattle An Indian raised by white urban parents, he faked his way into the '70s Seattle coffeehouse scene with his faked stories of life on the res. "Indian is easy to fake," he tells her. The news, however, is none too shocking to the prescient girl.

She knew Indians were obsessed with authenticity. Colonized, genocided, exiled, Indians formed their identities by questioning the identities of other Indians. Self-hating, self- doubting, Indians turn their tribes into nationalistic sects. But who could blame us our madness Corliss thought. We are people exiled by other exiles, by Puritans, Pilgrims, Protestants, and all of those other crazy white people thrown out of a crazier Europe. We who were once indigenous to this land must immigrate into its culture.

In "The Life and Times of Estelle Walks Above," a dialogue between a mother and a son, a man rambles on about his loose cannon mother, who forced him to read Our Bodies, Ourselves when he was thirteen.

Alexie writes a lot about mothers, about men on the vanguard of gender role reversal. Perhaps because it's injected with so much humor and sincerity it never comes off as feminist pandering. As the narrator in this story says, "Indian men are the most feminized on the planet. I am an Indian man, with your prior approval, hear me roar."

Here's his struggle with his mother's excessive understanding:

"Why can't you ignore me sometimes like all of the other moms and dads? Why can't you just give me a pair of scissors and tell me to run, boy, run? ... She understood my rage, my volcanic need to kick holes in every interior door of the house.

"I understand your need to physically express yourself," she said, "so I won't fix these doors until you find an alternative means of communicating."

There's no shame in liking Sherman Alexie because he's Indian. And that's not some sort of pompous white male nod to so-called marginal voices. It's not that his tribe makes Alexie talented, duh, but that he throws a monkey wrench into a common, liberal malaise. Thanks to cheap airfare and other manifestations of ubiquitous consumerism, it often feels that American culture has been homogenized beyond the pale. So whenever a book or a movie comes along that acknowledges regional distinctions in an authentic way, it suddenly makes us feel, if not proud, than fascinated to be an American.

Alexie does just that, and a bit more. It's in his energy, his unique language and his excitement to figure out how life is lived, be it with overbearing feminist mothers, fake poets or the burden of trying to articulate what being a modern day urban Indian is all about.

-- John Dicker

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