Yup, I Read Now


War Dances by Sherman Alexie

wardancesSherman Alexie’s classic short story, “This is What it Means to Say Phoenix, Arizona,” makes you feel as though someone has Kung-Fu gripped your heart, just really squeezed the hell out of the thing. In the immortal words of John Mellencamp during his prolific “John Cougar” phase, Alexie’s writing hurts so good. War Dances, Alexie’s latest collection of short fiction, poetry, autobiography, and genre defying acrobatics, is no exception.

In “On Airplanes” one of War Dances longer poems, the speaker complains about couples who ask him to give up his aisle seat for a middle seat, so that they can sit together. “How dare you/Ask me to change/My life for you/How imperial/How colonial.” But then something peculiar happens. The comedy gives way to an entirely different sort of experience. “But, ah, here is/The strange truth/Whenever I’m asked/ To trade seats/For somebody else’s love/I do, I always do.” There’s a twist at the end, a unexpected shift in tone that undercuts (or perhaps underscores) everything that has preceded it. That last stanza, for me, as sweet as it is, is like a sucker punch to the gut. Reading Alexie is like having someone caress you with one hand and wail on you with the other.

Alexie is the preeminent American Indian writer—quite possibly the world’s most famous living Indian—and as cool and grand as all of that sounds, it short-changes him; those sorts of qualifiers are unnecessary for genius of this order. Though his heritage has obviously shaped his world-view and politics, though his protagonists are primarily Indians, his talent is ferocious and his themes are universal.

And boy does Alexie loves his themes.

Whether it’s a cute but poignant poem about building the Lego Star Wars Ultimate Death Star with his sons or a somber short story about a Republican senator’s son who places his father’s political career in jeopardy by committing a hate crime, the pieces in War Dances are primarily about four things: fatherhood, the responsibility we have to our parents, disillusionment, and memory. So this would be my only criticism of the book: I understand the need for a thematically cohesive collection but for any Alexie fan this is well-worn territory. It would be intriguing, if nothing else, to see him tackle a few new themes. Notwithstanding this, War Dances is utterly readable (I finished it in just a couple of hours) and several of the stories are actually too funny. While I can waste hours watching trashy basic cable reality shows with the best of them, this is the kind of book that makes happy to be literate.

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