Have you ever noticed how people react when you tell them you’re reading a collection of short stories? They’ve asked, ‘What you reading?’, and when told short stories their smiles sort of freeze in place and they quickly change the subject. If it had been a full length novel they would have probably continued asking questions, ‘What’s it about?’ or even the dreaded ‘What’s it like?’. It’s almost as if they don’t think short stories somehow merit the same consideration as a full length novel. That they’re an inferior form of writing and those who write them not as accomplished as novelists.
I’ve no idea where or how people formed this impression. For not only can short stories be just entertaining and intelligent as any novel, in some ways they are even more difficult to write. For while a novelist has a few hundred pages at his or her disposal in order to build his characters, develop his plot, and establish the environment the story takes place in, the short story writer must be able to do the same in far less time. Of course they also have to tell their story at the same time. Which is why as far as I’m concerned a well written short story is every bit as deserving of our attention as any novel, and a collection by a good author is something to be treasured.
Anybody looking for proof of the short story’s merits need look no further than the recently published anthology of Sherman Alexie’s short stories, Blasphemy, from Grove Press distributed by Publishers Group Canada. Alexie a Spokane/Coeur d’Alene born on the Spokane Reservation in Wellpinit Washington, is not only a prolific short story writer but also a poet, novelist, screenplay writer and a performer.
In this collection people familiar with Alexie’s work will find some stories they’ve read before including “The Toughest Indian in the World”, “This Is What It Means To Say Phoenix Arizona” (The basis for the movie Smoke Signals) “War Dances” and “Because My Father Said He Was The Only Indian To See Jimi Hendrix Play The Star Spangled Banner At Woodstock” (hands down the best title for a short story I’ve seen yet). However, this is not just a repackaging of old favourites and there are about as many new stories as there are previously published ones.
Whether new or old Alexie’s stories wear their hearts on their sleeves and aren’t afraid to speak their minds. Characters drink, take drugs, sleep in alleyways, marry, have children, work for a living, pan handle, live, die, love and hate. Just like the rest of the world. The only difference is most of them are either members of the Spokane or Coeur d’Alene nations, conquered people living among their conquerers. Sometimes you don’t really notice any difference between the characters in his stories and those in other people’s stories. You wouldn’t even know they were from a different nation unless you were told.
Yet even those stories with seemingly assimilated characters still give the impression of being about those on the outside looking in. There’s something about their lives which makes you realize they’re always going to be separate and not equal no matter how much they try to blend. They never seem to want to talk about where they come from and they try to avoid thinking about their families. For it’s when they do the pretence of belonging falls apart. How many of their friends have parents who drank themselves to death? How many have had to go more funerals then birthday parties before they left home?
Of course there are the stories where its bloody obvious you’ve entered a world completely alien to anything you’ve ever experienced. “Cry Cry Cry”, the first story in the book, takes you into the world of desperation and hopelessness New Age bookstores and their talk of “Native Spirituality” pretend isn’t reality. “Whenever an Indian says he’s traditional you know that Indian is full of shit” says the narrator in reference to his cousin Junior, the drug dealing Pow Wow dancer. Maybe Junior’s story, his descent from using drugs, to dealing, to serving time for dealing drugs to white people and screwing white girls is repeated in ghettos all over America. Maybe not.
“Cry Cry Cry” is also about the person who has to see his friend and cousin go into free fall. The guy who’s there when he finally goes off the deep end and kills someone, and is then considered a pariah for turning Junior into the cops. How far has a community fallen when the person who turns in a drug dealing murderer is considered a traitor? When he considers himself a traitor? These are dangerous questions to ask, but Alexie doesn’t shy away from the nasty shit. When the narrator of the story takes up Pow-Wow dancing he does so thinking he’s honouring his dead friend. However, the truth he comes to understand is something different. He’s honouring all those who have died, he’s honouring what his people once were and what they might be again.
How many people ask when they see the homeless Indian drunk on the sidewalk “How did this happen?” No, most are going say something along the lines of “Fucking drunk Indian” or “What do you expect there all a bunch of fuckin’ lazy welfare bums who’d rather drink than work”. In an “Indian Education” we learn the lessons most Indian kids learn in their formative years. The ones which are part of the answer to the question hardly anybody asks. Humiliation, despair, hopelessness, hunger, self-pity and self-loathing aren’t on most Public School curriculums, but are the equivalent of the three “R’s” of an Indian’s education.
When a State Trooper asks why a guy who is happily married with kids, has a good job and is sober drives his car straight into a tree everybody shrugs their shoulders. What they don’t say out loud is “…when we look in the mirror, see the history of us our tribe in our eyes, taste failure in the tap water and shake with old tears, we understand completely. Believe me, everything looks like a noose if you stare at it long enough.” (Alexei, Sherman “Indian Education”, Blasphemy Grove/Atlantic Press, New York, 2012 p. 292)
Alexie is one of those remarkable writers who are able to write about truly gut wrenching and heart breaking events without making you feel sorry for those in the stories. What good is pity to these people anyway. It won’t put food on the table or take away the ingrained pain of being broken across the wheel of history. The people in his stories are real. Some of the situations they find themselves in aren’t going to be ones very many of us can identify with. However, somethings are common to all of us, no matter who we are and where we come from. The heartbreak of losing a parent, feeling lost in an overwhelming world and the need to have our pain understood. Alexie uses these to bridge the immense gap between the world of the conquered and the conqueror allowing to begin to understand what it would be like to stand on the other side of that divide.
There are very few authors who can write with the same amount of honesty Alexie brings to his work. Some of the stories aren’t pleasant, others are hilarious and some are just sad. However all of them are brilliant, multi-faceted gems guaranteed to make you think.