Books: Death and Other Distractions

It’s everywhere in Sherman Alexie’s latest collection.

Death is everywhere in Sherman Alexie's new story-poetry-scrap collection War Dances (Grove Press, $23), which begins with the attempted killing of a dog and ends with burial instructions. Elsewhere, a larcenous teenager is struck dead (accidentally) by a homeowner's baseball bat. A reluctant young journalist nearly halts his paper's presses for the sake of a late-breaking obituary. A screenwriter tries to turn the tragedy of several firefighters perishing in a blaze into a salable Hollywood script.Recently published in The New Yorker, the title story "War Dances" reads less like fiction than midlife memoir or medical chart. The 41-year-old Seattle narrator relates, in a jokey-yet-serious manner, his father's past death on the rez and his own recent brain tumor, likely caused by childhood hydrocephalus. (Alexie survived water on the brain as an infant.) Worrying about an MRI leads to worries about what bad country music his doctor might play during the procedure. Which in turn leads to worry about grocery shopping for the kids and kvetching about why Trader Joe's will suddenly stop stocking your favorite item.Death and disease are terrifying, but the process can be ridiculed, and the patient made to feel ridiculous. (But only up to a point: Alexie writes in another story here that "Indians respect dead bodies even more than live ones.") In "War Stories," the unnamed narrator's encounter with "Mr. Tumor" makes him recall his father's "death by natural causes" (i.e., alcoholism and diabetes), but never in sentimental terms. "The circle of life. Such poetic bullshit." There's no poetry in the hospital ward, but a traditional Indian healing song held in its place. Even then, the narrator confesses to "silently mocking" such pieties. He imagines an exit interview for his father in heaven (arranged like a multiple-choice quiz), in which the deceased questions whether the son should be able to use the expression "Indian summer" and declares, "If God really loved Indians, he would have made us white people." Even the dead make jokes about death.And if "War Dances" is an occasion for the narrator—and Alexie, now almost 43—to contemplate his own mortality, dead ancestors loom elsewhere, too. In "Salt," the collection's other standout story (of six), the obituary writer flees his assignment to pray for his indigenous forebears—"They're all gone now, dead by disease and self-destruction."Even in a weaker, more comic story, "The Ballad of Paul Nonetheless," about a would-be adulterer who falls for a woman wearing red Pumas at an airport, Alexie finds cause to mention Marvin Gaye Sr. and Jr., the father who murdered his son. Violence and forgiveness, mourning and grief—the weighty alternates with levity, and it's rare that Alexie settles on one for long.For that reason, the uneven quality of War Dances illustrates the quicksilver nature of his formidable gifts. "The Senator's Son," about queer-bashing and right-wing politics in Seattle, doesn't work at all. Alexie can't get the voice right; he's too much the quipping creature of the irreverent left to speak for the party of God. The interstitial poetry and marginalia amount to padding—scraps of insight and humor that are never sustained, never developed.Alexie is, in his way, a genius of distraction whose riffs and tangents are his strength/weakness. His two career-making novels, Reservation Blues and Indian Killer, came out in 1995 and '96, respectively, before he turned 30. Since then it's been story collections, poetry, blogging, lobbying to save the Sonics, denouncing Amazon's Kindle, indie-film scripting (Smoke Signals) and directing (The Business of Fancydancing), and lately agreeing to act in a movie by Humpday director Lynn Shelton. But not writing serious novels. He earned a National Book Award for his 2007 young adult book The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, essentially adapted from his own teen years. In the same year, his novella Flight was a short, strange response to 9/11, a time-travel fantasia to discourage oppressed youth from resorting to violence.It may be that Alexie is no longer a long-form writer, and there's no shame in that. In "Fearful Symmetry," a screenwriter struggles with writer's block, fretting, "He'd written two decent books and two bad ones. Perhaps he had only been destined to be a writer for that brief period of time." I don't think that's Alexie's problem. But what kind of writer is a different matter.Some might accuse Alexie of spreading himself too thin. But in a way, thinness can be a virtue. In "Paul Nonetheless," Alexie admires the lyrics of Irving Berlin ("Can a person simultaneously hurry and meander?") and ponders the fact that the songwriter lived until 1989: "It's quite possible that Irving Berlin voted for Michael Dukakis. How can you not love a country and a culture where that kind of beautiful insanity can flourish?"That the composer and the politician have nothing in common beyond Alexie's unifying conceit doesn't matter. Even if he can't focus his imagination for long, it's still

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