Last month, I went to Seattle for a much-needed vacation. For the cross-country flight and train rides, I brought along two, and only two, books. The first, chosen by me, was Stephen Dixon’s new novel, Phone Rings. So far, it’s wonderful, but I’ve only gotten 50 pages into it. The second book, as per my request, was a Pacific Northwest-specific book chosen by the fine readers of this blog.
Susan at Chicken Spaghetti praised a Timothy Egan book that sounded wonderful, but it proved impossible to find on short notice. Someone mentioned August Wilson, who lived in Seattle, but I dismissed this one since all of Wilson’s plays are set in Pittsburgh’s Hill District, where Wilson grew up. Sara recommended Katharine Dunn’s Geek Love—good title!—and Marilynne Robinson’s Housekeeping, which I’ve been meaning to pick up for years, among others. An interesting submission was Raymond Carver. I never knew that Carver was from the Pacific Northwest, but a quick Google search proved that he was indeed from Washington. Carver’s stories are so spare regarding physical detail and minimalist in their language that I had never really considered that he was actually from somewhere.
The winner was Sherman Alexie’s 2003 story collection, Ten Little Indians, since several people mentioned the book, either in my comments box or via email. I started it as my plane took off from Jackson to Atlanta; I had finished it by the time my Atlanta/Seattle plane touched down.
Alexie reminds me of Jim Harrison—the former’s prose is just as lusty, big-hearted, bawdy, and full of sloppy wet kisses to life as is that of the latter. Alexie’s sense of humor is sharper, more full of political (but gloriously profane) bite, than Harrison’s. Alexie is political in his writing—there’s no doubt that he’s a committed leftist—but he’s also politically incorrect. There are no Noble Spokane Indians here. Alexie’s characters all hard drinkers, down-and-outers, deluded fools, or no-good-niks, except when they’re combinations of all of the above, or when they’re charitable, loving, and warm.
And the man can write women better than Harrison ever could. (As much as I like Harrison, his major flaw is that he tends to write his women as basically men with breasts—there’s no discernible emotional or intellectual difference between men and women, except that the latter are objects of obsessive, confused longing.) The best of the nine stories—“The Search Engine,” “Can I Get a Witness?,” and “The Life and Times of Estelle Walks Above”—feature women as the central characters, and Alexie is so attuned to their complexities that he can define, and then redefine, characters in a one-liner.
Even better, the women aren’t variations on a theme. The young, bookish girl who goes on a cockeyed vision quest for a mysterious Spokane writer in “The Search Engine” is miles apart from the kooky, irrepressible Estelle Walks Above; neither of them has much in common with the bitter, funny bombing survivor of “Can I Get a Witness” or the multitude of supporting female characters throughout the collection. The women are fully formed—sometimes, they’re more fleshed out than the men—but wholly independent of each other. Alexie’s not interested in a cookie-cutter archetype of Woman, but instead living, breathing, frustrated, chatting, and (occasionally) triumphant people. There’s a multitude of voices in Ten Little Indians, and they all ring true.
Alexie loves women—he loves people, period; even the most jaded, hateful characters get their moments of humanity—but, much more importantly, he likes them. There’s a subtle difference. Many an author has placed Woman on a pedestal—has loved the idea of a woman—but ducks for cover when dealing with their day-to-day lives, menstruations, flaws, and witticisms. Alexie’s fearless in examining women from both within and without.
To this end, he uses dialogue, first and foremost. His talk is knowing and hilarious, and his prose style in general is conversational and slangy. “Flight Patterns” is primarily a story of two men—a cab driver and his passenger—talking, but their drive to the airport gives them an opportunity to give their whole life stories. (It hardly matters that the driver’s story might be a complete lie.) At the beginning of “The Life and Times of Estelle Walks Above,” the narrator tells us how he affects women by recounting their dialogue:
I was thirteen and pretty-skinny-beautiful, with eyelashes so black, long, and curly that grown women lost their minds and manners over me:
1. “Oh, why do boys always get the gorgeous eyelashes?”
2. “I’ll give you a million dollars for those eyelashes!”
3. “Hey, Sexy Eyes, why don’t you give me a call when you’re legal.”
4. “Hello, Benjamin, my name is Mrs. Robinson.”
5. “Hey, let’s play Tonto and the Lone Ranger.”
Alexie’s chat is funny and earthy, but there are important details in there—as #5 points out, the narrator is Indian—that the writer is wise enough to let stand without embellishment or preaching. Every chance for speechmaking and politically correct lecturing is undercut by a sharp line of dialogue or a moment of raw slapstick.
But it’s not just chatter. Most of the stories in Ten Little Indians are set in or around Seattle, and Alexie’s use of the environment puts the city front and center. Despite the fact that almost all of the protagonists are Spokane, Alexie’s only interested in the reservation as it exists in the mind—he’s a city boy at heart. The rain, the traffic, the lushness, and the surprising architecture are all present amidst the talk, even if the use of setting is muted and decidedly subordinate to conversation.
A true man of the urban streets, Alexie loves basketball. It’s a nice surprise to discover that the sport is the driving force behind “Lawyer League” and “What Ever Happened to Frank Snake Church?”, and that the game makes an appearance in over half of the stories. Basketball, of course, is a quintessentially American game—at this point, it may have replaced baseball as “America’s Game”—and, by making it such a prominent symbol within the collection, Alexie makes a nice point without quite having to make it: his Spokanes are full-blooded Americans, whether they like it or not.
As much as I loved this book, I may stay away from Alexie’s novels for a while. He’s so good at capturing a life in under 30 pages that I’m scared he might over-extend himself in longer stuff. There’s so much crammed into his stories—cold beer, hot sex, the perfect fadeaway jumper, women who run headlong into life—that he might seem too lush, too sentimental in longer prose. (Harrison has a similar problem; his collections of novellas are brilliant, but his novels are almost unreadable.) But I’ll take Alexie’s friendly, lusty extravagance over guarded minimalism any day—as long as he himself works in miniature.