What is a short story? Technically it's a story that's not more than a certain number of words or pages in length, usually a great deal shorter than even the shortest of novels. Yet there's more to a short story than just the number of words it contains. The good short story writers are able to give readers of their few pages insight into the world around them that many writers of full-length novels never manage to do. Of course our expectations when it comes to short stories are different than those we have for a full-length novel. Instead of a long, drawn out, and slowly developing plot over the course of which we gradually get to know a group of characters, we are usually plunked down into the middle of somebody's life and watch as they grapple with one particular incident.
For all we know, once we leave, after the story is done, they continue on to do other things, but that's not what caught the author's attention about them anyway. Short stories aren't much for extraneous details about a person's life, but at the same time we still somehow manage to get to know the person in the story well enough that by its end we are able to come to a conclusion about them and their life. How short story writers are able to do that is a bit of a mystery, one that I've never really taken the time to solve, and actually one that I'm not that interested in solving. Would you ask a stage magician to reveal the secret behind some great illusion that has left you spellbound? Well, the same goes for a short story writer as far as I'm concerned — I don't want to know how they did it, I just want to enjoy the results of their labour.
While Sherman Alexie has published three full-length novels and written a couple of screenplays, the majority of his work has either been short stories or poetry. His latest collection from the Grove/Atlantic press, War Dances is pretty much evenly split between poems and short stories, and there's not a wasted word or thought among them. When you only dole out so many words you can't afford for even one to sound faintly off, let alone discordant. In this collection Alexie is completely in tune with his subject matter, with each word and thought working together to give us 23 snapshots of life.
Alexie happens to be a member of the Spokane Nation, a Native American, so naturally quite a number of his stories and poetry deal with that reality. That doesn't mean you're going to find stories filled with eagle feathers and sweat lodges, but you will find references to things like dying a natural Indian death of alcoholism and diabetes. In the title story of the collection, "War Dances", after being diagnosed with a benign brain tumor a man recalls his father dying of the above-mentioned "natural" causes, and in the midst of his own worries about his health he goes over in his mind the things his father went through — endured — before his life finally ended.
Alexie is far too subtle a writer to simply write out a standard list of indignities suffered at the hands of a racist society. Instead with satire and humor he is able to make the same points, but without hitting us over the head too hard. At one point in "War Dances" he interrupts the story with what his character calls an exit interview for his father, a list of questions about his life. My favorite was this: "F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote that the sign of a superior mind 'is the ability to hold two opposing ideas at the same time.' Do you believe this is true? And is it also true that you once said, 'The only time white people tell the truth is when they keep their mouths shut'?"
However Alexie doesn't just write about American Indians; he also writes about the general emptiness of some people's lives. "The Ballad Of Paul Nonetheless" is the story of a rather vacuous businessman who specializes in vintage clothing. While there's nothing wrong with his profession, there's something wrong with his soul. "He was a twenty-first-century American who'd been taught to mourn his small and large losses by singing Top 40 hits," we're told as Paul sings the refrain from a stupid Hall and Oates song after glimpsing a beautiful woman in an airport. It's not actually the woman herself that attracts him as much as her red Puma running shoes. He had fallen in love with them when he first saw them advertised, and on a beautiful woman's feet they were even more spectacular.
Paul, who claims to love his wife and three daughters, still has managed to sleep with eight other women during the course of his marriage, which could explain why he and his wife are separated. Paul doesn't have any core values, he believes pop music and popular culture to be the great unifying force among Americans. How can we be so different, he thinks, if we all know the lyrics to the same one thousand songs? How can anything be a unifying force for a man who is a serial adulterer but is also convinced he loves his wife?
Alexie has captured the essence of man living in a fantasy world with Paul, and the scary thing is that we can see the potential for this character everywhere. Popular culture defines us in ways we don't even know – it's what we talk about with colleagues at work, it's one of the few things that we have left in common with most people that we come in contact with. What does that say about us when a 30-minute situation comedy is the glue that binds a society together? When the only things we really have in common with the people we share a country with aren't ideals but 20 minutes of mindless comedy and 10 minutes of commercials?
Not all of the stories or poems are as satirical as the two I've described. In fact some are really quite splendid in how they capture moments of beauty within the commonplace. His poem "Ode To Small-town Sweethearts" captures the joy/pain/foolishness of adolescent love/lust with the right touch of reality mixed with sentimentality so that everybody reading it – no matter their background – can immediately relate to and understand the experience being described. "Mortals have always fought the gods/And braved epic storms for love and/or lust/So don't be afraid to speak honestly/About how you obeyed beauty's call./And though your triumph was small/ You can still sing of your teenage odyssey."
In some ways short stories are the insects caught in amber of literature in that they preserve moments in time and space for us to examine from all angles. In his most recent collection, War Dances, Sherman Alexie proves once again that he's a master of shining a light through amber and letting us see the insects from all sides. Sometimes the stories he tells are filled with bitter truths that will hurt going down or that some people aren't going to want to read. Yet at the same time there is a gentleness to his stories, on occasion, which show a willingness to believe that there are things that all of us share, and some experiences are universal no matter how far apart we may appear to be. That's the ultimate magic trick behind a short story and Sherman Alexie is a conjurer without equal.