A fine mess

Alexie’s blend of short stories, poetry yields mixed results

In “War Dances,’’ Sherman Alexie is often entertaining even when his stories disappoint. In “War Dances,’’ Sherman Alexie is often entertaining even when his stories disappoint. (Chase Jarvis)
By Adam Mansbach
Globe Correspondent / February 21, 2010

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The prolific and talented Sherman Alexie’s new collection is a mixed bag in both form and content.

“War Dances’’ intersperses short stories and short poems for no readily apparent reason. Perhaps the author wanted to ensure a wider audience for his poetry, or perhaps the book felt too thin without these additions (it feels too thin anyway). But Alexie has always considered himself a Renaissance man; there is scarcely a form he has not explored, from screenwriting to young adult fiction, poetry to novels. His gifts do not manifest themselves equally across these genres, but one gets the sense that Alexie does not see it that way. And so more than anything, “War Dances’’ feels like a compendium of everything he has written lately, from the polished to the sketched.

At the gleaming end of the spectrum is the book’s second story, “Breaking and Entering,” about a film editor who inadvertently kills a teenage burglar with a tragically timed swing of a baseball bat. The burglar is black, and the controversy surrounding the incident is made stranger by the fact that the editor is not white, as the media believes, but a member of the Spokane Tribe of Indians. Alexie riffs deftly on race, expectation, and power, as the protagonist negotiates the complexities of a fraught form of passing.

The title story is equally compelling. Here, Alexie’s creativity with form is employed to excellent effect, as the potentially familiar saga of a man grappling with his father’s illness, death, and legacy is reinvented through freewheeling fragmentation. Lists, interview transcripts, and poetry are mingled with scenes, augmenting and undercutting the narrator’s tapestry of memories; the inclusion and immediate deconstruction of a poem he writes about his father manages to be both hilarious and poignant, a commentary on the lies and truths of art: “the entire third stanza of this poem sounds like a Bruce Springsteen song, and not necessarily one of the great ones. And yet, ‘shotgun-rich and impulse poor’ is one of the greatest descriptions your son has ever written, and probably redeems the whole poem. . . . You never said, in any context, ‘Once a thing tastes your blood it will come for more.’ But you, as you read it, know that is absolutely true and does indeed sound suspiciously like your entire life philosophy.”

Alexie’s stock in trade has always been the self-awareness suffusing his chronicles of Native Americans in contemporary America. He is unafraid to allow his characters to conform to stereotypes - so long as there is someone present to ruefully acknowledge those stereotypes, as when one Indian upbraids another for searching a hospital for an Indian family in the belief that “some Indians would just happen to have some extra blankets laying around.”

“ ‘That’s . . . 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. New ones.’ ’’

Identity is often mutable and rock-solid at once here. “As a Native American, Sherwin was, by definition, trapped in a difficult but lustful marriage with tragedy,” Alexie writes in “Fearful Symmetry” of a character who is hired to write a Hollywood screenplay requiring him to alter the racial backgrounds of historical figures so the director can cast his girlfriend. It is among the more uninspired stories here, but Alexie’s easy prose manages to lend it some charm.

Like a good actor slumming his way through a bad movie, Alexie is entertaining even when his stories fall flat. Such is the case in “The Senator’s Son,” an ambitious clunker about a gay-basher who puts his father’s political career at risk when he unknowingly assaults his former best friend. Alexie is aiming for high drama, but the story is scuttled by two-dimensional characterizations, predictable twists, and dialogue that reads more like excerpts from a political position paper. And yet, watching Alexie grapple with the intersection of the personal and the political is a kind of consolation prize.

“The Ballad of Paul Nonetheless” suffers from a different problem. The dialogue is crisp and funny, but this tale of a financially successful, unhappily married hipster’s attempt to romance a woman he meets in a series of airports never quite takes off, merely taxis along the runway until the pilot blows his remaining fuel on an ending as forced as this metaphor.

Of the poems grouting the spaces between these stories, it must be said that they usually rhyme, and that they might accomplish more, emotionally and aesthetically, if they did not. For a writer so capable of bending form to fit his needs in one medium to be so hamstrung by it in another is odd. The short-shorts woven into “War Dances,’’ more prose poems than stories, are better: Structured as brief dialogues, they are by turns mystic and earthy, chilling and funny.

To read Alexie is to be entertained and provoked: made to laugh, made to think and to rethink. “War Dances’’ may be uneven, and slight, but its best moments are very good indeed, and even its worst feel relevant in a way that too much current fiction does not.

Adam Mansbach is the author of “The End of the Jews,’’ winner of the 2008 California Book Awards gold medal in fiction.

By Sherman Alexie
Grove, 209 pp., $23