Wednesday, February 24, 2010

War Dances

Having been told I should read Sherman Alexie and having read only his children's story The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian and one of his poetry volumes, Face, when I saw his new book War Dances (now a finalist for a PEN/Faulkner award) at the library, I picked it up.

It's an interesting mix of different kinds of short fiction and poems. The title story turns out to be mostly about his father, although it's also about his identity:

"The Indian world is filled with charlatans, men and women who pretended--hell, who might have come to believe--that they were holy. Last year, I had gone to a lecture at the University of Washington. An elderly Indian woman, a Sioux writer and scholar and charlatan, had come to orate on Indian sovereignty and literature. She kept arguing for some kind of separate indigenous literary identity, which was ironic considering that she was speaking English to a room full of white professors. But I wasn't angry with the woman, or even bored. No, I felt sorry for her. I realized that she was dying of nostalgia. She had taken nostalgia as her false idol--her thin blanket--and it was murdering her.
'Nostalgia,' I said to the other Indian man in the hospital.
'Your dad, he sounds like he's got a bad case of nostalgia.'
'Yeah, I hear you catch that from fucking old high school girlfriends,' the man said. 'What the hell you doing here anyway?'
'My dad just got his feet cut off,' I said.
'And vodka.'
"Vodka straight up or with a nostalgia chaser?'
Natural causes for an Indian.'
There wasn't much to say after that.
'Well, I better get back,' the man said. 'Otherwise, my dad might wave an eagle feather and change my name.'
'Hey, wait,' I said.
'Can I ask you a favor?'
'My dad, he's in the recovery room,' I said. 'Well, it's more like a hallway, and he's freezing, and they've only got these shitty little blankets, and I came looking for Indians in the hospital because I figured--well, I guessed if I found any Indians, they might have some good blankets.'
'So you want to borrow a blanket from us?' the man asked.
'Because you thought some Indians would just happen to have some extra blankets lying around?'
'That's fucking ridiculous.'
'I know.'
'And it's racist.'
'I know.'
'You're stereotyping your own damn people.'
'I know.'
'But damn if we don't have a room full of Pendleton blankets....'"

The figuring out the identity part of the story is well-leavened with humor, as you can see. I also found it interesting that much of the story told in The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian is, well, absolutely true--that is, autobiographical. He evidently really was born with hydrocephalus, for example.

I also particularly enjoyed the story of a (so far as I can tell) fictional character who makes up stories about women he sees in airports, The Ballad of Paul Nonetheless. It begins with his sighting of and waving to a woman he is "instantly but ordinarily attracted to" and how he reacts when she ignores him:
"She's gone, she's gone." Paul sang the chorus of that Hall & Oates song. He sang without irony, for he was a twenty-first-century American who'd been taught to mourn his small and large losses by singing Top 40 hits."
After musing for three or four pages about the power of song in pop culture, Paul runs after the woman, introduces himself, and asks if her name is Sara, like in the Hall and Oates song "Sara Smile." They have a brief and mostly inconsequential conversation, and thereafter he refers to her as Sara, meeting her again months later in a different airport to have a slightly more consequential conversation and then remembering her later in yet another airport when he sees a different woman who looks a bit like her.

I also particularly enjoyed the poem Ode for Pay Phones:


That Autumn,

I walked from

The apartment (shared

With my sisters) to that pay phone

On Third Avenue, next to a sleazy gas station

And down the block from the International House of Pancakes. I was working the night

Shift at a pizza joint and you were away at college. You dated a series of inconsequential boys. Well, each boy meant little on his

Own, but their cumulative effect devastated my brain and balls. I wanted you to stop kissing relative strangers, so I called you at midnight as often as I could afford. If I talked to you that late, I knew

(Or hoped) you couldn't rush into anybody's bed. But, O, I still recall the misery of hearing the ring, ring, ring ring

Of your unanswered phone. These days, I'd text you to find you, but where's the delicious pain

In that? God, I miss standing in the mosquito dark

At this or that pay phone. I wish

That I could find one

And call back

All that



Isn't the image of the "mosquito dark" nice, especially at this point in February, when nothing outside has much of a smell and there haven't been any insects since last fall? And the last four lines are fun because the double meaning is unexpected; don't you think?

FreshHell recently initiated a conversation about the use of technology in fiction; she thinks that too much modern technology complicates the plot unnecessarily. But I find the use of telephones in older mystery movies fascinating because of the way the plot so often revolves around the way they had to be used. As I said in FreshHell's comments, my children often find it mystifying. "Why didn't he just call on the way over there?" they want to know. Also, one of my favorite jokes from the Kevin Kline movie In and Out, where the fashion model from LA stabs ineffectually with too-long nails at an old-fashioned rotary phone, is pretty much lost on them. Do any of you have favorite jokes or references that no longer work well because of the way technology has changed?

Anyway, I found Alexie's use of stereotype and pop culture to be amusing and effective, and enjoyed wandering through War Dances.


Lass said...

I loved this book - he's one of my favorite authors lately - I know we had some points of disagreement on "Absolute Diary" but I'm glad you gave him another try.

Jeanne said...

As it turns out, I'm not so sure they were actual points of disagreement, but uneasiness about how to read his tone. That's always easier to do when you're more familiar with an author's work. Probably I shouldn't have started with a children's book! But I'm a convert now.

(That doesn't mean I'm necessarily rooting for this one over The Gate at the Stairs, though.)

Harriet said...

AJ is fascinated by the telephones on The Andy Griffith Show, where you have to talk to an operator by name and ask to be connected to the person you want to talk to. But I remember being fascinated when AJ at age 1 picked up a block that looked like two squares attached by a flat piece in the middle -- in other words, shaped like the phone receivers we used as kids -- held it to his ear, and started having a mock conversation. I am reasonably certain he had never ever seen a phone that looked like that before. Our phones all look like remote controls. I was fascinated and I still don't know why he picked that one when the plain rectangle looked much more like any phone he'd ever seen his parents use.

Anna said...

I haven't read anything by this author, but I'm going to keep this one in mind. It sounds likes it's both thought-provoking and humorous.

Diary of an Eccentric

writtenwyrdd said...

You'd like his Tonto and Lone Ranger Fistfight in Heaven, too. It was made into a movie, I think. (Smoke Signals? Not sure.)

FreshHell said...

I don't like reading about today's technology but I love old phones. Hell, I own an old desktop phone that it anchored in place. Sure, it's got a long cord but you can't take it outside and talk into it.

Anonymous said...

Hmm. Maybe it is uneasiness about his tone that's the problem, because Diary of a Part-Time Indian didn't strike me as great, but I like the selection you've picked from this one. Maybe I'll try him again.

Jenny said...

Okay, I'm giving Alexie's short stories a try. Indian Killer may not have been a fair sample.

I'm sad that rotary phones went out. I actually have a rotary phone, but what I really want is the old old kind where you hold one piece to your ear and speak into the base. There used to be a stall in the Jubilee Market in London that sold phones like that, and it wasn't there the last two times I went, and I am deeply regretting not buying one of those phones when I had the chance. I mean they were like fifty quid, but I would really have enjoyed one if I'd bought it.