Sherman Alexie’s newest fictional short story collection, Blasphemy, is a gritty assemblage of narratives that wander like the protagonists in them, ending loosely, never quite finished. Through his ambling characters, Alexie explores the current culture of Native Americans living in the Pacific Northwest near the Spokane Indian Reservation. They deal with seemingly small issues — from picking up hitchhikers to arguing with girlfriends — but through their sharp, rhythmic prose they propel these topics outward in a wandering and melancholic attempt to navigate modern Native American culture. Alexie grapples with a multitude of issues: race, violence, alcoholism, spirituality, Native American masculinity, and the collision of Native American tradition with current society.
Blasphemy: New and Selected Stories
Grove Press (2012)
Among the most haunting of the collection, and one of the only stories narrated from the perspective of a non-Native American, is the story “Green World.” In this story, Alexie explores the lethal relationship between humans and nature as two characters encounter a destructive technology: The windmills that are supposed produce green energy slaughter birds, leaving their bodies strewn across soft grass. The narrator, who is hired to collect the corpses, has an encounter with a Native American wandering toward the windmills with a shotgun, singing a death song. The protagonist states, “He kept singing his death song as he raised his weapon and pointed it at me. I remember thinking that he was singing my death song.”
The tension between the two rises as the man presses the barrel of the gun to the narrator’s forehead, but soon we learn the Native American’s tribe built the windmills. His anger is for the little casualties of sustainable energy and the idea that his tribe, that once took pride in protecting the land, has condemned the birds to a death without honor. “This is just the beginning,” the man with the gun says, and he shoots shell after shell at the windmills. This sense of powerlessness in the face of a white American society is present throughout the collection.
Alexie has an aching need to explore the power struggle between Native Americans and white America in the face of pervasive stereotypes that distill individual tribal characteristics into a single mainstream cultural consciousness. In “Cry, Cry, Cry,” a man betrays his best friend, Junior, and to honor Junior’s subsequent death he begins war-dancing at the high school gym, much to the chagrin of other Native Americans. “Emigration” details a short conversation between mother and son which ends in the son’s sudden realization that his daughters will someday return to the Spokane Reservation from which he has worked so hard to distance himself. “War Dances” describes an agnostic son discovering he has a brain tumor just after his father dies of alcoholism. Repeatedly we see characters brushing against contemporary America, attempting to grasp at the gossamer threads of their history and trying to reconcile them with the present.
While Alexie demonstrates an ability to reflect on this intersection between past and present, he also turns a sharp eye to Native American culture from the inside. Characters cope with the pain of trying to assimilate into mainstream American culture without abandoning Native tradition. In “Whatever Happened to Frank Snake Church,” the 39-year-old protagonist, Frank, mocks himself as he experiences a heart attack on the northern slope of Mount Rainier. As Frank collapses, he thinks about how Spokane Indians are supposed to die young. ”How indigenous, Frank thought, how wonderfully aboriginal, applause, applause, applause, applause for me and my people.” Frank ridicules himself in what he thinks are his final moments, criticizing his nation for its deep spirituality and history of drug and alcohol abuse.
Some characters swing to the other side of the spectrum. Jimmy, a character from “Protest,” appears to be white but is actually a Spokane Indian. Jimmy becomes so political that he shows up to class barefoot claiming “shoes were invented by the white man.” Jimmy is eventually arrested for calling a policeman racist and resisting arrest. Alexie observes from a space within his cultural narrative that considers several perspectives, from the hyper-political Native American to the man who has separated from the reservation and finds its practices archaic and outdated.
Alexie parses Native American life from several angles, yet the collection lacks a presence of female characters. Many women, from Jeri, who falls in love with an abusive, drug-pushing felon, to Marie who receives only half a page of text to narrate her American Idol audition, either bleed into the background of the story or exist to drive the narrative forward for the male characters they orbit. While bothered at first, I kept reading and came to the conclusion that this decision is not thoughtless; Alexie deliberately explores masculinity and its complicated relationship with Native American culture by asking the question: what does it mean to be a Native American man in modern America?
In the story, “The Toughest Indian in the World,” our narrator picks up a hitchhiker who travels to reservations to fight other Native Americans for quick cash. Later, as the two men spend the night together in a shambling motel, we discover during an intimate encounter that the fighter, a character who embodies bravado and masculinity, is gay, while the other is not. The narrator says, “I had never been that close to another man… I wanted him to save me.” The two characters share a moment that is described in depth, which is an intriguing choice for a writer like Alexie. Alexie deconstructs a common taboo attitude toward male intimacy in literature by writing the sex scene in detail instead of scribbling a few concise sentences alluding to the act. Afterward, the narrator is left feeling chilled and empty. He asks the fighter to leave, and the fighter disappears into the dark, leaving the door wide open. It is no coincidence that a hyper-masculine fighter shares a sexual experience with a journalist who has spent most of the story reflecting on the women he has dated. Near the end of the story, Alexie observes that masculinity and sexuality are transient and complicated by presenting us with the image of the open door. It is a question begging to be answered: will you close it or not?
This sense of longing — of questions unanswered — permeates the book with dissonant tension. Short stories, with their fleeting characters, vibrant language and ephemeral scenes have an uncanny ability to haunt. The beauty of a good short story is its ability to present self-contained incidents that enamor, leaving us longing for more. I had a difficult time reading Blasphemy all at once, not because of its prose or its scathingly honest characters, but because of the weight each story holds. Alexie revisits the poverty, alienation, and emptiness of reservation life while leaning on humor and spirituality to create a relatable experience for any reader, regardless of race. Every ending left me washed with longing for a conclusion the characters would never receive. Alexie brings to light the world of the Native American to mischievously, humorously and tragically explore the larger, complicated issues behind what it means to be a Native American man in this time.
There is so much to say about Blasphemy, as it has so many characters, each encapsulated in stories that evoke deep sadness, powerlessness to white American society and painful cultural loss. But it is also a collection of humor, love in its various forms and brief levity. This is the beauty of the short story. It is part poetry, part death song, all language at its most finite.
The views and opinions expressed here are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of Boise State University, the Center for Idaho History and Politics, or the School of Public Service.