Haunted by Salmon

Sherman Alexie
Sherman Alexie; drawing by David Levine

What is an Indian? runs through Sherman Alexie’s second collection of short stories, The Toughest Indian in the World, like a demented, demanding mantra. In these nine stories, irony is sounded like the tribal drums of the ghost musicians of the story “Saint Junior” that haunt the Spokane Indian Reservation. (“Irony, a hallmark of the contemporary indigenous American.”) Alexie, best known for his novels Reservation Blues and Indian Killer, is a Spokane/Coeur d’Alene Indian educated at Gonzaga University and Washington State University, a funny, irreverent, sardonic but sentimental, rebellious postmodernist voice set beside his elder and conspicuously more writerly and “spiritual” Native American contemporaries N. Scott Momaday, Leslie Marmon Silko, and Louise Erdrich. Sherman Alexie is the bad boy among them, mocking, self-mocking, unpredictable, unassimilable, reminding us of the young Philip Roth whose controversial works of fiction “The Conversion of the Jews” and Portnoy’s Complaint outraged an older generation for whom anything Jewish had to be sacrosanct.

Unfortunately, Sherman Alexie’s ironic narrators know too much of Indian history: “It was Indian scouts who had helped white people kill Sitting Bull, Geronimo, and every other Indian warrior in the world.” Their nostalgia for “the rez” is tempered by the memory of unsentimental parental advice: “Son, if you’re going to marry a white woman, then marry a rich one, because those white trash women are just Indians with bad haircuts.” And “the rez” itself is “spiritual and magic” mostly in the imaginations of white tourists, who know nothing of its wet tedium. As Low Man Smith, a successful writer of mysteries, reminisces of the Coeur d’Alene Reservation he has left behind:

The tourists didn’t know, and would never have guessed, that the reservation’s monotony might last for months, sometimes years, before one man would eventually pull a pistol from a secret place and shoot another man in the face, or before a group of women would drag another woman out of her house and beat her left eye clean out of her skull. After that first act of violence, rival families would issue calls for revenge and organize the retaliatory beatings. Afterwards, three or four people would wash the blood from their hands and hide in the hills, causing white men to write editorials….

(“Indian Country”)

Through most of the stories in The Toughest Indian in the World a singular voice of ironic intelligence and self-deprecatory humor prevails, that of a youngish male, reservation-born, who has been educated in white schools and has left the reservation for work (journalism, law); sometimes he has married an Indian woman, and sometimes he has married a white woman, as in the story “Class” (“Blonde, maybe thirty-five, and taller than me, [Susan] was the tenth most attractive white woman in the room…. I didn’t have enough looks, charm, intelligence, or money to approach anybody more attractive than that”); obsessively this young man broods upon “the…

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