Sherman Alexie’s last novel, “The Absolutely True Story of a Part-Time Indian,” which won the 2007 National Book Award in the young-adult lit category, was the culmination of all of the author’s work up until that point, a documentation of the struggle to maintain balance between the Native American and white worlds. Alexie’s 14-year-old protagonist was the courier for much of Alexie’s own story and the novel’s beauty relied heavily on that ingrained knowledge. He follows up his best work with a quiet whisper, “War Dances,” a collection of short stories that search for what it is to be human. The title could tell the tale—Alexie’s work here is as intense as a war and as tender as a dance.
A vintage-clothing-store owner suffers a failing marriage but courts another in different airports across the country. An obituary writer finds meaning through his work. A film editor goes face-to-face with a young intruder who’s determined to steal his collection of DVDs. Of course, Alexie’s oddball detail makes this even more enjoyable—the airport seductress wears “glorious” red Pumas. (He later writes: “There was a rule book…when a man wants revenge he must whistle the soundtrack of ‘The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly.'”) When he wants, Alexie can be very funny.
The centerpiece of “War Dances” is the title story, in which a man recounts his father’s death—a “natural Indian death” comprised of diabetes and alcohol—as he simultaneously learns he may be suffering from a brain tumor. Written in first person, the extraordinary story, frightening, sad and touching, slams you with realism. When the narrator asks himself, “How many cockroaches were in my head?” there’s a direct sanity one can recognize. When Alexie describes “Hydrocephalus,” a condition in which the cranial cavity is flooded with excess cerebrospinal fluid, he’s writing about himself. It’s a heartbreaking, hopeful piece.
The thing that gets me though, the sentimental slob that I am, is Alexie’s brief, beautiful coda, a small poem titled “Food Chain” that he tacks on to the end of the book. With lovely imagery preceding it, Alexie offers one final line that rings so true and, in many ways, courageous: “I loved my life.” (Tom Lynch)
Sherman Alexie discusses his work October 22 at Harold Washington Library Center, 400 S. State, as part of the “Writers on the Record with Victoria Lautman” series. 6pm.