Sherman Alexie has taken a lot of flack during his career, accused by some Native American critics of perpetuating the worst kind of Indian stereotypes and reproached for his often irreverent attitude toward tradition and his refusal to portray Native Americans in what he regards as a nostalgic and overly sentimentalized manner. In his latest short story collection, aptly titled Blasphemy, Alexie ensures that the criticism will continue. With fifteen stories selected from his four previous collections, plus sixteen new stories, Blasphemy is a gritty exploration of life in the Northwest, on and off the Spokane Indian reservation.
Alexie is a master of the one-line joke, and his stories are generously peppered with his trademark black humor. In the opening story, “Cry Cry Cry,” the narrator’s cousin Junior becomes a born-again Indian and a drug dealer within the same short paragraph. As Junior goes on to lead a gang of inner-city wannabes who commit drive-by cursings and use government commodities as weapons, the narrator comments sardonically, “Yeah, my cousin was deadly as a can of cling peaches” (3). [End Page 491] Despite the comedy, however, Alexie is wholly serious. As he probes the dire effects that drug culture has on the reservation, he also hits out at tribalism and its urge to defend the indefensible. When Junior is arrested and tribal members mount a protest, the narrator warns that “when you start fighting for every Indian, you end up defending the terrible ones, too” (4). Alexie refuses to make excuses for dysfunctionality. And this is his blasphemy.
Though a stark social realism flows throughout much of Alexie’s work, with race and identity his ever-present themes, each of the previous collections has had a distinct tone. Set largely on the Spokane reservation where Alexie grew up, The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven (1993) explores the joys and sorrows of contemporary reservation life; The Toughest Indian in the World (2000) moves into the urban environments of Spokane and Seattle and focuses on intimate relationships between friends, lovers, and family; Ten Little Indians (2003) expands Alexie’s horizons to encompass a more universal view of the human condition; and War Dances (2009) moves even further away from ethnic-centered plotlines. In Blasphemy, we get a taste of these transitions, but sacrifices have inevitably been made. While the collection contains some of Alexie’s best-known stories, including “The Approximate Size of My Favorite Tumor,” “The Search Engine,” and “What You Pawn I Will Redeem,” many others are sadly absent. “Can I Get a Witness?” from Ten Little Indians is an important marker in Alexie’s career, as is the flawed but brilliant “The Sin Eaters” from The Toughest Indian in the World.
Of the new stories, most could be categorized as flash fiction with the shortest coming in at less than a page in length. Alexie’s best stories, though, seldom move in a straight line. They meander back and forth like an old river on flat ground, bending sharply into brief asides before turning back on themselves to form a series of oxbows. Flash fiction simply doesn’t allow for such to-ings and fro-ings or for the development they bring to a story’s plot and characters. When looked at on its own, the new material feels much less satisfying than the old. Besides “Cry Cry Cry,” however, two stories do stand out: “Gentrification,” in which a white narrator living in a black neighborhood ponders the true nature of racism, and the heart-aching “Basic Training.”
In the latter story, Emery and Deuce Carter, father and son, struggle to keep their Donkey Basketball operation in business as they travel around the West, putting on charity tournaments. Though the heyday of Donkey Basketball has long since gone, Emery is optimistic that a resurgence is just around the corner: “Donkey Basketball is coming back. With all this new technology shit, people are aching to get back to what really matters. … I’m telling you, Deuce, we’re going to get rich the old-fashioned way and...