Imagine, if you will, a contemporary American short story collection filled with tears of joy, love that endures infidelity, a generous pawnshop owner, a kind-hearted police officer and more. Are your neurons limping with the sheer effort of it? I’m not even finished. Imagine children who love their parents. Imagine a collection of stories that shows deep, sincere respect for the art of physical training. Surely, you say, I must be talking about something, anything, besides a collection of contemporary fictions. Maybe that bit about infidelity, sans the enduring love part (short story readers are used to infidelity and its life-ruining shrapnel), but children who love their parents? It can’t be true.
It is. This parade of unlikely oddities exists in Sherman Alexie’s new book Ten Little Indians, a collection that finds Alexie charging into the treacherous realm of the sympathetic with caffeinated glee. I say this with admiration—the majority of the characters in the collection are plagued by the really big questions that turn a lot of other writers toward the familiar comforts of the dysfunctional. How do you love? How do you grieve? How do you reconcile a big heart with a modern world rife with chaos and contradiction?
The answers aren’t easy to come by, but the characters here possess an angry, restless love that has far more in common with the exertion of energy than it does with acquiescence. Reading along, I thought of Gershom Sholem’s assertion, “The Jewish mystic lives and acts in perpetual rebellion against a world with which he strives to be at peace.” In their way, so, too, do Alexie’s characters, and their rebellion is complicated by a need to invent rituals to replace those that have disappeared. This is a problem noted by Corliss Joseph, the college student at the center of the first story in the collection: “Long ago, as part of the passage into adulthood, young Indians used to wander into the wilderness in search of a vision, in search of meaning and definition. Who am I? Who am I supposed to be? Ancient questions answered by ancient ceremonies.”
It follows that, in a world in which such rituals have largely disappeared, something needs to fill the void. The substitutions that Alexie’s characters invent are novel ones. For Corliss Joseph, the answer comes in a quest to find Harlan Atwater, the Spokane Indian author of an obscure, long-forgotten collection of poems. The narrator of “Do Not Go Gentle” deals with the grief of a sick child by purchasing a vibrator called “Chocolate Thunder,” and waving it above his comatose child. Frank Snake Church, the protagonist of “What Ever Happened to Frank Snake Church?,” copes with the loss of his father by collecting the deceased man’s hair, rolling it into a ball, eating it, and then hurling his 42-year-old body into basketball after a 22-year hiatus.
These rituals are satisfying to the reader, firstly because they manage to combine humor and pathos, and secondly because they never fail to surprise. Surprise is something that Alexie has done well in previous works. I’m thinking, specifically, about the tough-guy narrator of The Toughest Indian in the World, who picks up a hitchhiker and winds up in a hotel bed with him. This collection’s finest stories continue that tradition. In “What You Pawn I Shall Redeem,” the narrator, Jackson Jackson, is a homeless alcoholic on a quest to reclaim his grandmother’s powwow regalia, which he spots in a pawnshop in downtown Seattle. Jackson Jackson needs to come up with $999 to buy the regalia back, and he has only 24 hours to do it. He’s hardly sentimentalized—every time he gets money he spends it on liquor—but he manages to earn the reader’s sympathy with his unflinching honesty and sense of humor. After passing out on the railroad tracks, for example, a policeman threatens to take Jackson Jackson into detox. “No man, that place is awful,” he says. “It’s full of drunk Indians.” Both the policeman and the narrator are able to laugh about it. It’s one of many surprises in the story.
Some of the weaker stories in this collection feel more predictable. In the story “Lawyer’s League,” for example, it seems disappointing that the half-black, half-Indian narrator joins a group of lawyers in a weekly pick-up game only to find a racist white jerk among their number. In “Flight Patterns,” the extended exchange between a salesman and a taxi driver from the Ivory Coast feels more like a platform for ideas than a story. Take the following line of dialogue, for example, delivered by William, the salesman: “I was walking out of my gym downtown, and this big phallic pickup pulled up in front of me in the crosswalk. Yeah, this big truck with big phallic tires and a big phallic flagpole and a big phallic flag flying, and the big phallic symbol inside leaned out his window and yelled at me, ‘Go back to your own country!’” Is it funny? It is. William, an Indian, is in his own country. Could it happen? Unfortunately, yes. But the point isn’t how realistic such moments are, it’s whether or not they’re interesting, and I would argue that a pickup driven by a redneck is far less interesting than, for example, the generous policeman in “What You Pawn I Shall Redeem.”
These are small grievances, though. It is worth the cover price of Ten Little Indians just to watch as these characters try to find answers to their daunting questions. They howl and laugh in protest, but, for the most part, they also come up with answers that seem just insane enough to be believable.