War Dances by Sherman Alexie
(Grove Press, 2009; Paperback, August 2010)
When I first opened my copy and started paging through, getting a feel for the book, I’ll be honest—I was a little intimidated by Sherman Alexie’s War Dances. It’s a collection of 23 pieces: not only poetry and short fiction (an already ambitious combination), but also a handful of question-answer sequences sprinkled throughout. Alexie even mixes forms within pieces: prose pieces include lettered lists and numbered sections, numbered sections sometimes consist of a mixture of prose and poetry, and many poems include large blocks of prose.
But as soon as I started to read, I began to feel more at home in Alexie territory. Long known for his literary contributions to the Native American culture, Alexie’s experiences navigating between two worlds inspire much of his work, which often focuses on issues of race and cultural mores, especially those of Native American culture within the mainstream American culture. In War Dances, Alexie continues to navigate these familiar subjects, while also moving beyond them into newer territory. Once I was ready to abandon conventional literary form and to embrace Alexie’s “mix tape” of words and sentences—to glide between paragraph and verse without hesitation—I was ready to take in the fluidity of humor and heartache and longing that Sherman Alexie writes so well.
War Dances is not a book to be afraid of. Alexie’s poetry is prosaic and conversational, his prose intimate and honest. His characters are flawed and believable, even sometimes entirely loathable. In this collection, Alexie’s first publication including prose since 2007, he moves (ever so slightly) away from his usually lovably flawed characters to some who are more fatally so: An adulterous husband, a killer, a gay basher. But much like Alexie challenges his reader with his unique use of form, he also challenges his readers with these difficult characters.
One of the more difficult pieces for me to read, “The Senator’s Son,” is told from the point of view of a young white Republican—a politician’s son—and begins just as the main character is committing a violent hate crime against two homosexual men. For a staunch liberal and ardent advocate for gay rights, I found myself wondering how I’d make it through the piece without wanting to throw the book against the wall.
But Alexie, as I have grown to trust, didn’t let me down. He embraces his complex characters: the socially responsible but ethically questionable senator, the detached and self-absorbed senator’s son, and the former best friend—a homosexual and firm and loyal supporter of the Republican party, who in the end, makes one hell of a case for gay rights:
Hey… I don’t expect to be judged negatively for my fuck buddies. But I don’t want to be judged positively either. It’s just sex. It’s not like it’s some specialized skill or something. Hell, right now, in this house, one hundred thousand bugs are fucking away. In this city, millions of bugs are fucking at this moment. And, hey, probably ten thousand humans—and registered voters—are fucking somewhere in this city. Four or five of them might not even be married…Anybody who thinks that sex somehow relates to the national debt or terrorism or poverty or crime or moral values or any kind of politics is just an idiot.
Some may find Alexie’s political persistence comes on too strong; in a slow beginning to the book, the story “Breaking and Entering” tells about the ensuing racial politics following a burglary in which a young African American boy is killed; and the poem “Go, Ghost, Go” mocks humorless individuals who are “addicted to the indigenous.” Until the fourth piece of the book, one might get the feeling that Alexie is hostile or pretentious. But have faith, because what follows is not only new and challenging, but also heartwarming and brave, addressing issues of race, culture, interconnectivity, and personal crisis with intelligence and humor.
Nichole Held is a MA candidate at St. Cloud State University, working on a fictional piece about Alzheimer’s Disease.