Blasphemy: New and Selected Stories

  • Sherman Alexie
  • Grove Press
  • 480 pp.

The masterful storyteller brings keen self-awareness and refreshing humor to these tales that explore loss, ethnicity and the meaning of “otherness.”

Reviewed by Susana Olague Trapani

Before the 2011 National Book Festival in Washington, I was (and I admit this with a bit of embarrassment) not familiar with Sherman Alexie. As the festival’s second day of presentations in the Fiction & Mystery tent began, the title of Alexie’s National Book Award-winning The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian caught my eye. I’d never thought of my southeastern Michigan childhood as that of a part-time Mexican, but the description certainly applied. Alexie’s talk ended up being one of my favorites. I had never laughed so hard at a talk, nor been forced to switch gears so quickly to hold back tears. I’m disappointed that I can’t find the video on the Library of Congress’ website. Too blue, I wonder? Perhaps. But it was honest.

Though I can’t relive his festival talk, I have been able to delve into Alexie’s work — several novels, collections of short stories and poetry. And with the release of Blasphemy, a collection of 30-plus short stories, half new, half published before, Alexie’s mastery of the form is on full display. The tales touch on topics — racism, poverty, adultery, homophobia, the environment — that are social and political kerosene, yet the truths he mines are so insightful that even the most ardent critic must pause and consider his words. The depth of Alexie’s stories is complemented by the self-awareness and unapologetic humor that suffuse almost every page. Again, Alexie draws out laughter, even as a reader struggles to understand the overwhelming sadness these tales can evoke.

“Whatever Happened to Frank Snake Church” is among the most powerful in the collection, exploring a theme that has a starring role or potent undercurrents in nearly all the stories — the loss of a father. Alexie, no stranger to this loss himself, thoroughly explores Frank’s life after his father’s death, the latest in a series of losses that have left Frank unmoored and seeking meaning. “Come back, Daddy,” a prayer repeated 27 times by Frank after his father’s funeral, are three heartbreaking words uttered by a man who is still struggling to know himself. Once a top-rated high school basketball player, Frank uses the sport as a starting point for finding his place and honoring his deceased parents. He pushes himself to extremes while struggling against the idea that his reverence may be nothing more than his attempt to relive a glory long passed.

In “The Vow,” a young couple expecting their second child revamp their wedding vows to include an unusual promise: the wife will send the husband to a nursing home should he develop Alzheimer’s. Memory and magic meld to give us insight into the power of their love, the power of the wife’s grief at the thought of losing her husband — and how frightening love can be when contrasted with the certainty of aging and death. “Damn you for being so fucking sad,” the wife weeps to her husband, as we receive a beautiful summation of their courtship and marriage. In just four and a half pages, Alexie encapsulates the bond that marriage can be, linked together with passion, affection, impatience, anger and remembrances.

The strength of Alexie’s work is his unrepentant exploration of what it means to be “other,” the territory that comes with the otherness and the push an “other” can receive to leave otherness behind. In “Assimilation,” Mary Lynn, an Indian woman married to a white man, sleeps with a stranger, another Indian she picks up in a bar. Is she bored with her life? Does she fear that her marriage has stripped her of identity? Does it have anything to do with her ethnicity?

“She wished that she could be called Coeur d’Alene as a description, rather than as an excuse, reason, prescription, placebo or diminutive,” Alexie writes of Mary Lynn. It’s easy enough to blame ethnicity for the problems of persona (or to praise someone for her virtues in spite of her ethnicity, as I’ve experienced more than once), but the conflicts of ethnicity within are never hidden in Alexie’s work. Mary Lynn’s reasons for cheating, specifically with an Indian man, are wide-ranging: Ethnicity plays a role, will always play a role, but Alexie is quite clear that it can’t be used to explain away our fears and desires.

Finally, “War Dances,” from Alexie’s 2010 PEN/Faulkner award-winning short story collection of the same name, merits mention. In yet another exploration of the father-son relationship, Alexie displays an unflinching willingness to tackle systemic problems facing the Native American community — in this case, alcoholism — that have become stereotypes easier to ignore than to address. But “War Dances” also exemplifies another current running in Alexie’s work: the willingness to take stereotypes and use them to comedic effect.

Alexie’s affectionate tweaks at Native American culture are wonderfully done. When the protagonist needs a blanket for his father, cold in a post-surgery stupor, he deliberately seeks out another Indian family, sure that they’ll have “good blankets.” When the Indian family’s patriarch offers to bless the blanket, our narrator balks, afraid the song will keep him from his father — until the patriarch launches into his “radio-friendly honor song.” Alexie’s skill at conveying the complexities of identity is both reassuring and empowering to me, as I struggle to do the same but worry far too much about offending.

Blasphemy is blasphemous only in disrespecting the boundaries that many would place on those who mine otherness. In seeking or claiming a post-racial society, it’s far too easy to silence those whose stories need to be heard. And that silencing can come from members of those communities as well as from outsiders — “others” themselves in this context — and the desire to advance sometimes tramples the necessity to tell these stories. To know who any of us will be demands an examination of who we’ve been and who we are. Yet the answers do not come so simply, nor will the questions ever be fully answered. It’s an ongoing process, and we’re fortunate to have Sherman Alexie help us navigate — and for me, offer encouragement as I explore my identity through fiction writing — these tricky territories and bumpy waters that are so easy to fear, but so critical to explore.

 

Susana Olague Trapani is an associate editor of The Independent.

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