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'The Toughest Indian In The World' by Sherman Alexie

Books in Brief

Sunday, August 27, 2000

By Robert Peluso


The Toughest Indian In The World

By Sherman Alexie

Atlantic Monthly Press


For most of us, forgetting is easier than remembering. But for the characters in Sherman Alexie’s new story collection, forgetting is not an option.

The lawyers, mothers, wives, fathers, loners and reporters who populate the nine stories by this 33-year-old Spokane/Coeur d’Alene writer cannot help but confront the irreducible fact of their existence: They are Native American, or as Alexie prefers, Indian.

Unfortunately, this elemental fact meets with mixed success as a device for narrative conflict. In stories such as “Assimilation,” “Dear John Wayne” or “Class,” for instance, the depth of the characters’ experiences are sacrificed to Alexie’s insistent premise. As a result, potentially gripping stories fizzle into pedantry.

In “Assimilation,” Mary Lynn, a middle-class Indian woman who is married to a blue-eyed white man (all the Caucasians in this collection are blue-eyed), is overcome with the need to cheat on her husband because he is white. Her quest brings her to the streets, where she quickly finds a scarred Indian worker whom she takes to a cheap motel.

Half-jokingly, she labels her desire a “carnal form of affirmative action,” although she also senses its significance as both an antidote to her entrapment and an opportunity to unite with her deepest, Indian self. Later in the day, however, when she and her husband are driving home, they encounter a suicide. He rushes to investigate, and she suddenly realizes her attachment for her spouse.

Alexie loosens the reins slightly in “Class,” the story of an Indian lawyer in a rocky marriage who escapes to a local Indian dive, where he learns that his white wife has been faking orgasms. At the bar, he is promptly pummeled by another Indian patron.

“I wanted to be with my people,” the narrator explains to a barmaid after his beating. “Your people? We’re not your people,” shouts the barmaid. But the narrator insists.

The barmaid then concedes, “Yeah, we’re Indians. But we live in this world and you live in your world.”

Fortunately, though, reductive pieces like “Assimilation” and “Dear John Wayne” or forced pieces like “Class” and the Kafkaesque “The Sin Eaters” are overshadowed by the stories that point to Alexie’s potential as a serious writer.

Although even some of these works show surprising stylistic lapses, the best of them, like “The Toughest Indian in the World,” “Indian Country,” “One Good Man” or “South by Southwest,” where a white man and an Indian search for an authentic language of the heart amid the verbal noise of contemporary America, draw us in and help us connect with the deep humanity of the characters -- and thus with the point Alexie wishes to illustrate about their fates.

They are stories that let their characters live and breathe; they are stories that refuse easy answers; they are stories in which Alexie shows sympathy and compassion for his characters as people rather than as mere vehicles for his thematic concerns.

In “The Toughest Indian in the World,” previously published in the New Yorker and the best story in the collection, Alexie writes with power and grace of a Spokane Indian reporter living in a white world that neither respects nor understands him. Like the main characters in “Assimilation” and “Class,” he gets an urge to reunite with his holistic past after hooking up with an itinerant Lummi boxer. Even though Alexie’s favorite symbols, “scars” and “salmon,” appear prominently, he lets the narrative graciously unfold to its complex ending. Stories like this leave a lasting impression.

Against the hard fact of being Indian, the best of Alexie’s stories render the anguished fate of people whose inability to forget that they are Indians is as strong as their knowledge that peace, safety and love do exist. When Alexie gives these people the freedom to be themselves, he creates stories that are worth reading and rereading.

Robert Peluso is a free-lance reviewer living in Pittsburgh.

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