by Sherman Alexie
Thanks to Sherman Alexie, I will forever be pilfering the phrase “terminally nostalgic.” When I saw him read back in December, I asked him how he felt about seeing the places he has written about disappear over time. He said that he was constantly thinking about what was no more, even down to the now-closed doughnut shop where he worked for three weeks, and that as a Spokane Indian, nostalgia will always be a part of who he is.
Because of this, Alexie’s work is forever filled with a sense of longing — longing for the past, longing for what never was, and longing for connection in the midst of our busy world. War Dances is a collection of short stories, poems and other fiction forms that read as semi-autobiographical, made even more enjoyable if you live in the Spokane area. When he talks about driving up Maple to Francis, I know right where that is. When a woman mentions the story about a man and his children being involved in a horrible accident coming into town, I remember reading about it in the newspaper and it makes the comparison to another man’s loneliness all the more effective.
Sherman Alexie has made me nostalgic for a place I haven’t left yet.
In the title short story, a man watches his father approach death in an area hospital. His father keeps complaining that he is cold, and so he goes in search of a better blanket than the thin hospital ones provided. He spots another Native man and strikes up a conversation:
“I mean,” the guy said. “You should see my dad right now. He’s pretending to go into this, like, fucking trance and is dancing around my sister's bed, and he says he’s trying to, you know, see into her womb, to see who the baby is, to see its true nature so he can give it a name — a protective name — before it’s born.”
The guy laughed and threw his head back and banged it on the wall.
“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.
“Vodka straight up or with a nostalgia chaser?”
“Natural causes for an Indian.”
There wasn’t much to say after that.
I first read this story in the New Yorker, which you can still find here. The whole time, I kept reading parts aloud to my husband, who ended up not having to read the thing himself because I ended up telling him the whole thing. Under the portion of the story called “Exit Interview for My Father,” I laughed knowingly at the following paragraph:
Your son distinctly remembers stopping once or twice a month at that grocery store in Freeman, Washington, where you would buy him a red-white-and-blue rocket popsicle and purchase for yourself a pickled pig foot. Your son distinctly remembers the feet still had their toenails and little tufts of pig fur. Could this be true? Did you actually eat such horrendous food?
I live about 7 miles from that store, and my daughter goes to school just up the road. Most people pass by the store on their way to the Coeur d’Alene Casino. To my knowledge, they do not currently sell pickled pigs feet, but you can buy local beef for about $4/pound and of course, still purchase popsicles.
Alexie also has a way with commenting on the world without coming off as preachy, or even worse, too “concept-over-character.” In “The Senator’s Son,” the title character finds out that his longtime best friend is gay, a conversation that leaves him questioning his flaws and pondering the effect our words have throughout the rest of our lives. Years later, he sees his friend again, who says that he still plans on voting for the Republican senator, saying:
“Anybody who thinks that sex somehow relates to the national debt or terrorism or poverty or crime or moral values or any kind of politics is just an idiot.”
Someone needs to plaster that on the Capitol’s door.
If anything, War Dances presents characters looking for meaning in their lives, and in the process, makes you ponder the meaning within your own. Even apart from the geographical familiarity, some passages had me nodding with the sort of recognition that makes me want to shove this book into the hands of everyone I know.
Despite all the talk of diversity and division — of red and blue states, of black and white and brown people, of rich and poor, gay and straight — Paul believed that Americans were shockingly similar. How can we be so different, thought Paul, if we all know the lyrics to the same one thousand songs? Paul knew the same lyrics as any random guy from Mobile, Alabama, or a woman from Orono, Maine. Hell, Paul had memorized, without effort or ever purchasing or downloading one of their CDs — or even one of their songs — the complete works of Garth Brooks, Neil Diamond, and AC/DC. And if words and music can wind their way into and around our DNA strands — and Paul believed they could — wouldn’t American pop music be passed from generation to generation as easily as blue eyes and baldness?
Honestly, I could keep pulling passages and keep going on about the value of each section (“Ode to Mix Tapes?” Essential), but I’ll have transcribed the whole thing. Just read the book.
Get yourself the hardback edition first though — at that same reading, Alexie also mentioned that he will rewrite the paperback edition into a more straightforward novel. I look forward to seeing how all these stories and characters come together.
This review is part of Pajiba’s Cannonball Read challenge, in which participants attempt to read and review 52 books over the course of one year. The challenge ends October 31, 2010.
This review was also published on Pajiba.com on May 24, 2010.