Review of Ten
Little Indians, by Sherman Alexie
Copyright © by Dan Schneider, 8/26/05
Here is what any decent, self-respecting critic should do whenever he comes upon the work of someone he knows- be up front about it. Such is the case with Sherman Alexie’s latest book, Ten Little Indians. That said, I was never a bosom buddy of Alexie’s, but I did meet him several times in Minneapolis, when he was in town for several events sponsored by the reprehensible (or perhaps abominable, evil, or dread?) literary organization The Loft. And, in that handful of meetings I actually spent two times in extended conversations of twenty or more minutes with the man, and found him to be witty, intelligent, and charming. Furthermore, his film Smoke Signals was a winner, and his novel Indian Killer was better than I expected. In short, he was a PC Elitist who wasn’t the total arts-hating, self-centered jackass that most of them are, and a really nice guy, as well as very funny. I really wanted his latest book to be good, and also to like it, because I liked the man. Alas, I owe a greater duty to you, the reader, than I do to a brief acquaintance, and have to report that the book, as a whole, is not good. It consists of nine stories, the first six of which are really bad, and tales seven thru nine grading out as seven being outstanding, one of the best published short stories of the last decade or two, number eight being very good, and the last one being quite good. This schism, between absolute shit, and near- if not actual- greatness is a quality that dogs much of Alexie’s work.
The man is a year younger than me (he’s thirty-nine), but has successfully parlayed his connections with such orgs as The Loft, his intermittent talent, and his status as a Native American into sixteen published books, as of this date. I do not begrudge him this, yet I wish far more effort was placed on his writing, so that he could score at least a seven or eight of nine successful tales, and less on ‘playing the game’. My guess is that Alexie is a gambling artist- someone who lets raw talent, alone, do his work, rather than really ever get serious, and disciplined, because his bad stories are not just horrible, but at the level of a talentless high school student that takes up ‘creative writing’ for no reason other than to kill time.
The first story, The Search Engine, is a case in point, as it revolves around a sexually ambiguous Spokane Indian girl who obsesses over a book of really bad Indian poetry, and tracks down its author. The fact that it would be difficult to believe anyone would become obsessed over the bad poetry is not the tale’s worst flaw- its terminal PC is. For example, in the whole book all the Indians are of the Spokane tribe- seemingly significant because Alexie reputedly is half Spokane. However, each tale-centered person is so generic and stereotyped that they could be from any Indian tribe, so this point becomes a wholly useless factoid in each story. In fact, the lead character- Corliss- tells a geeky white person to ‘Fight the stereotype!’, yet Alexie utterly ignores his own charge. She also feigns offense at innocuous comments, yet Alexie never frames why she does so, nor has the character question that, nor any of her actions, so what could be an entrée into a character portrait instead remains a hermetic stereotype. And at fifty-two pages long the story is a chore to read because its end is seen coming by page ten.
Lawyer’s League is a one-note PC monologue about an immature half black-half Spokane lawyer who has anger management issues, and assaults a white man who may not be as racist as is presented. Can I Get A Witness? is a story that, coincidentally mirrors the idea of a story I recently wrote. My story is about the sickness of calling the poor victims who died on 9/11 ‘heroes’, and what Alexie aptly calls ‘grief porn’, and follows a ‘survivor’ of the Twin Towers collapse who is an evil person, debunking the notion that all who were in the buildings were good and clean and innocent. Alexie, however, has not my deftness nor subtlety. Where I get the reader to sympathize with an evil character, Alexie merely has a lunatic PC character, who survives a suicide bomber, run off at the mouth spouting banal Left Wing crap about there having to have been a pedophile father who was raping his daughter, and how that daughter must have been relieved on 9/11 and thought Osama bin Laden a hero. I ask- which sounds the better scenario to explore? Alexie’s execution is as prosaic and banal as it sounds, and the story a perfect example of a good idea gone horribly wrong. Do Not Go Gentle revolves around a sexually frustrated couple’s obsession with a brown dildo. It’s as lame as it sounds. It fails as a slice of life and is not funny- so fails as attempted satire. By this point I was thinking that his ideas far outstrip his ability to convey them through words- which might be why his film was better than the writing I’ve read. Flight Patterns is about a cab ride to an airport, and is just an excuse for more PC preaching from an Ethiopian cabbie to a Spokane passenger. The conversation is forced and heavy-handed to the max, and its end melodramatic, until the last two sentences. The last bad story is The Life And Times Of Estelle Walks Above, a tale that literally consists of several lists of PC complaints. The tale, as do all the prior ones, lacks subtlety, tells in a very overt A to B to C manner, has another bad, melodramatic ending, and reflects a shockingly narrow worldview that seems to revile universality. These tales are hermetic, and meant only for Spokane Indian readers, and very feeble-minded ones, at that. Although, if one were to judge from these tales, that’s all that exists on that res.
Then, just when it seems that Alexie is utterly hopeless, he drops a flat-out brilliant, if not great, story on you. Do You Know Where I Am? spans a long marriage, from a small incident of pre-marital deceit, through adultery, and to a deathbed scene that is one of the most moving ever penned. This tale comes out of nowhere. its characters are rich, textured, and not stereotyped in the least. Why did it take seven stories to get it right? I can only believe it’s because Alexie really and truly does not know what constitutes good from bad or great writing, and it’s a totally unconscious approach to writing, like spinning a roulette wheel. Alexie simply cannot judge, and now as I think back upon it, I do recall he was not, in any way, a prescient critic, nor appreciator of published writing. But, make no mistake. This story is as good as any you’ll find in print.
Just a notch or two below is the nest story, the book’s most lauded tale, and an archetypal New Yorker story, where it appeared, selected as one of 2003’s best tales for the O. Henry Award, What You Pawn I Will Redeem which follows the twenty-four hour quest of a drunken homeless Indian to raise a thousand dollars to buy back a family heirloom from a pawn shop. He fails, and ends up with the same amount of money he started with, only to have the pawn broker give him the heirloom, his grandmother’s ceremonial tribal regalia, because he knows the man ‘worked hard’ for it. It leans a bit more on stereotypes, and its sappy predictability denies it greatness like its predecessor tale, but it still is a classic tale in a Frank Capra vein, and well worth reading. The book’s final story is also very good, and called What Ever Happened To Frank Snake Church?, and follows a washed up Indian basketballer who comes up just short of his goal. The Alexie of the last three tales is a vastly different writer than the Alexie of the first six. Call this schism the Good and Bad Shermans. Good Sherman could be master, but Bad Sherman is a panderer to the worst in art and people, and bad Sherman tends to beat Good Sherman by the same two to one score as in this book.
The basic problem is that Bad Sherman cops out too easily, and gets too
hermetic- centering stories about things that have little interest outside of a
select group of people. Not only that, but there is little range- the same PC
touchstones are obsessively hit again and again. It gets old by the second
story, and the second alcoholic Indian- or maybe the first. Let me repeat
myself- Alexie utterly fails to Fight the stereotype! He feeds them and
does nothing to subvert them. And, even more tellingly, he even fails the vile
PC dictum of ‘art is truth’, for his tales are more often bullshit, then
well thought out portrayals of people. And his stories wander aimlessly, more
often than not, and are far, far too long, save for the dildo tale, which is so
bad it never should have been written.
Of course, Alexie knows that there isn’t a reviewer in the published world that will dare call him on these manifest failings. To give two examples from the PC eunuchs which dominate the Twin Cities of Minnesota there is this from the terminally fellatric Rain Taxi: ‘In the end, Ten Little Indians tells the tales of a group of exceptional people who are average and average people who are exceptional. More reminiscent of Raymond Carver’s episodic What We Talk About When We Talk About Love than the geographically contained Sherwood Anderson of Winesburg, Ohio, Alexie’s stories are “ambiguously ethnic,” mourning, delighting, and devious in that ambiguity.’ Well, the first sentence is a meaningless phrase meant to sound deep, the carver reference rings true only if you’ve not read the work he mentions, and the ambiguously ethnic comment is a head-scratcher since Indians, and Spokane Indians especially, are in every tale. Even more hilarious is the opening to a review of the book in the tabloid City Pages: ‘Sherman Alexie has never been one to view the world in terms of red and white. The 36-year-old member of the Spokane/Coeur d’Alene tribe, who grew up on a reservation in eastern Washington….’. The hilarity resides in a) the fact that the whole book absolutely delineates things in red and white, as do all of his works. Has Alexie ever written of a Frenchman, or a white steelworker, or a black architect? And b) the fact that right after that opening sentence the writer feels a need to delineate Alexie in terms that could only have come from Alexie, himself!
Yet, there is always the hope that Good Sherman will defeat Bad Sherman, that depth and range will prove as alluring to him as stereotypes and banality. Even he has to tire of preaching to the choir, and writing such stereotypes after the tenth page or so, no? Perhaps not, because the chances are that without his very ethnicity he’d have a difficult time rising above the sea of mediocrity the totality of his work has kith with, despite his flashes of genuine brilliance. Learn discipline, Sherman! If the six bad stories were cut to their essence, and then had newer, non-stereotypical, elements added in they would be much better. Damn! I really wanted this book to be good, very good, so that I could sing the praises of a man I’ve known and liked. But it’s not, and unlike other ‘critics’ I’m very good, and too damned honest- and honesty can be a bitch. But, while honesty can be a bane to bad art it, and acumen, are what criticism feeds on. Chew on that, Bad Sherman!
[An expurgated version of this article originally appeared on the 6/05 Hackwriters website.]
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