If there's one consistent element so fundamental to Sherman Alexie's work it might as well be oxygen, it's the element of unfettered wit. Whether it's a moment of rez humor on a southbound bus (as in his 1995 film, Smoke Signals) or the way Alexie takes charge of his own book readings with the charisma of a seasoned gospel preacher, his sense of the ironic spills out into whatever medium he happens to inhabit. To his longtime readers this, of course, comes as no surprise. But even readers who noted the brief moments of levity in the otherwise stark Indian Killer, who know that Alexie can find something funny in even the unlikely late-night holdup of an International House of Pancakes, will find his new short story collection, Ten Little Indians, a breath of the proverbial fresh air.
"There's much more joy in this book than probably anything I've ever written, so much more hope," says Alexie, who will read from Ten Little Indians Friday at the Met. "I think that's more realistic. Life is not as depressing as our literature sometimes makes it out to be."
If Alexie's photo on the back of Ten Little Indians is any indication, he's writing from firsthand experience. Head thrown back in laughter, he seems less like "one of the major lyric voices of our time" (The New York Times Book Review) than a guy who knows all too well what absurd and delusional creatures we humans can be. But such awareness, in fact, gives Alexie's stories their considerable emotional resonance. How else to explain the power of his characters in all their human frailty -- a homeless man who fritters away as many chances as he gets to buy back his grandmother's powwow regalia from a Seattle pawnshop? Or a guy who survives a terrorist attack only to realize he's always been pretty capable of wreaking devastation in his own love life?
"I've been describing the book as being for the most part about people who are good at their jobs and terrible, or clumsy, at love," he says. "I also was getting tired of 'Indian' always being the focus. I don't wake up in the morning and think 'I'm an Indian.' I don't brush my teeth and think 'I'm an Indian brushing my teeth.' When Indians greet each other they don't go 'Hello, Indian. How's your fight for sovereignty going?' No. When we get together we talk about our love lives."
As in life, love as experienced by Alexie's characters is often thwarted by time, by human nature and by sickness and tragedy. In Ten Little Indians, this sense of impermanence is amplified by the fact that as it was going to press, Alexie's father, Sherman Alexie Sr., lost his long battle with kidney disease.
"He was sick for a long time, so that sense of losing someone is in most every story," he explains.
While love manifests itself in many guises throughout the nine (not 10) short stories in this collection, one constant is that the protagonists are either Spokane Indians themselves or related to Spokanes who are living in or visiting Seattle.
"That was always the plan, to set most of these stories in Seattle. I wanted to explore the idea of 'white collar Indians,' " explains Alexie, who left Spokane for Seattle almost a decade ago. The move has been beneficial for his work, and in Alexie's eyes, utterly necessary.
"The thing is, by leaving your world, your worldview gets bigger," he says. "Leaving Spokane and moving to Seattle, my worldview increased, it got bigger. You've gotta remember, I grew up on the rez and Spokane used to be big. But it's always been a case of me wanting to have more. And Seattle had more."
One of the things Alexie has also come to appreciate about Seattle is its high proportion of liberals. "I live a public life. I'm always embattled and fighting and taking stands on positions," he says. "It's nice to know that I live in a community that's really supportive of my politics."
Still, Alexie professes to be a "contrary bastard," and says that liberals sometimes make him more cynical than even conservatives.
"They're wimps," he explains. "I get more angry mail, more hate mail from liberals than I do conservatives. Why? Because I'm so 'aggressive' and 'insulting.' Because I 'make fun of people.' I'm a liberal with fangs."
Alexie is not, however, fearless. He's just learned how to wrangle the energy into a more useful currency.
"When I was 13 years old, I left the rez to go to an all-white school, so I've been making 'fearless' decisions all along. I'm still scared. The fear doesn't change. It's not letting it stop you," he says. "You learn to recognize it as just another emotion. You can't stop being happy or sad, it just happens. Fear just happens. But you try to use it."
Alexie is nothing if not productive. In addition to just embarking on a 27-city book tour, he recently spoke at the University of Washington commencement and launched a new biweekly political column in The Stranger (aptly entitled "Reservations"). His directorial debut, The Business of Fancydancing, is coming out on DVD and VHS on July 8 ( www.wellspring.com/homevideo ). He even served as the Grand Marshal for the Reardan Mule Days parade.
"I was so happy to do it," he says. "All the kids are gone, but their parents are still around, and I thought it was great that Reardan is a small conservative town and they know how much I've turned into a Commie pinko. But they had a Commie pinko for their Grand Marshal anyway."
Publication date: 06/26/03