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Books that confront as much as they comfort are among my favorites. Maybe that’s why I love Sherman Alexie so much. One minute I am smirking at his self-deprecating, ironic humor; I’m feeling on the inside--a part of his demographic-- and laughing at the same things. Then, one sentence later, I realize that I’ve become the butt of his jokes. His humor has a sharp edge, and no one is exempt from being exposed as “frail and finite”—a phrase used multiple times in his latest collection War Dances . A reviewer on Good Reads explains that Alexie makes her feel like “a friend, an enemy, a racist, and a co-conspirator all at the same time.” Perfectly stated.
War Dances is the follow up to The Absolutely True Story of a Part-Time Indian . It is described as a short story collection, and for lack of a better classification, I suppose that comes close. In truth, though, it’s a combination of genres—part poetry, part litany, part autobiography, and part stream- of-consciousness novella. There are some short stories in there, but they really serve as bookends to the larger ideas of the work. So, what are the themes that bind this hodge-podge of a collection together? Not to be a downer, but it seems to be a meditation on death that, among others things, asks how we go on living in the wake of tragedy, injustices, and everyday sorrows? How do we find meaning when we don’t believe in magic of the secular and sacred variety? The collection starts with a question “Why do poets think /They can change the world” and ends with a declaration “Startle those birds /Into flight/With my last words/ I loved my life.” The middle, like all middles, is murky—part dismal, part hilarious.
Luckily, even in despair, there is humor, very dark humor, but that’s really the best kind anyway, isn’t it? One example that immediately comes to mind is in the title story. The narrator is visiting his father who is dying from alcoholism and diabetes, “natural causes for an Indian,” in the hospital. At his father’s request, he is seeking a good blanket for his father’s bed. He wanders all over the hospital in search of an Indian to ask for a blanket. The man responds “So you want to borrow a blanket from us? Because you thought some Indians would just happen to have some extra blankets lying around? You’re stereotyping your own damn people.” The scene gets funnier from there, but one should really read the Alexie version, rather than my retelling.
So go ahead, be confronted. Laugh at yourself. Alexie is good medicine.