Native Son

Sherman Alexie's Vision

Reservation Blues
by Sherman Alexie
Atlantic Monthly Press, $21 hard

The legendary Mississippi bluesman Robert Johnson didn't die in 1938. Instead, after making his deal with the devil at the crossroads and recording the 29 songs that would haunt the world forever, he faked his death. Robert Johnson wandered, wandered across time and the continent, searching for a way out of his pact with the devil. He tried to lose his guitar, but the guitar always found him. Eventually the spirit of an Indian mystic named Big Mom, who lived on a mountain top above the Spokane Indian reservation in Washington, invaded his dreams and beckoned to him. Big Mom had been the spiritual guide of Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix, Benny Goodman, and countless others.

And that's how Robert Johnson came to be walking down the road recently when Thomas Builds-the-fire, the Spokane reservation's resident storyteller, drives by in his van and gives Johnson a lift. When Thomas lets Johnson off at the foot of the mountain, he realizes that Johnson has left his guitar in his van. Thomas starts an all-Indian rock & roll band called Coyote Springs. Of course the band dreams of fame and fortune. But the band is a vehicle for other dreams as well - dark and disturbing dreams of the past, tests of faith and will and the human spirit. And so begins the strange, uncommon adventure that serves as the central vehicle for Sherman Alexie's Reservation Blues, a novel of uncommon lyrical vision and power.

Robert Johnson's saga is one of the most haunting true myths of our time. It's a legacy with rich literary potential, especially in the hands of a writer with Alexie's background and tremendous talent. In Reservation Blues, Alexie, himself a Spokane/Cour d'Alene Indian, taps deep into the universal spirit embodied by the blues, creating a lyrical world in which the shadows of unforgettable characters from the past bleed across the ages, wandering through our daily lives and nightmares - especially those of the Indian protagonists of this story. Somewhere in this piece, it must be said that, historically speaking, white people have a lot to account for. Our forebears not only took the continent from the native peoples who inhabited it but attempted to erase their cultural identity. Like the blues tradition, the survival of Native American people and their traditions is a testament to the power of the human spirit not only to endure, but to find its voice in music, literature, and the other intangible things that give meaning to life.

But Reservation Blues isn't about white guilt anymore than it is really about an Indian rock & roll band's quest for stardom. It's about the search for faith and the meaning behind things. It's also about survival. The dark legacies of the past and the way that Alexie's characters deal with them in their daily lives are the context of this novel. Alexie's gift for hallucinatory prose and his command of not only Indian legends and imagery but those of American pop culture make Reservation Blues a novel that pulsates with all the energy and magic of a herd of wild horses galloping across the plains.

One hundred and thirty four years before Robert Johnson walked onto the Spokane Reservation, the Indian horses screamed. At first, Big Mom thought the horses were singing a familiar song. She had taught all of her horses to sing many generations before, but she soon realized this was not a song of her teaching. The song sounded so pained and tortured that Big Mom could never have imagined it before the white men came, and never understood it later, even at the edge of the twenty-first century. ... As she stepped out of her front door, Big Mom heard the first gunshot... Big Mom ran to the rise above the clearing where the horses gathered. There, she saw the future and the past, the white soldiers in blue uniforms with black rifles and pistols. She saw the Indian horses shot and fallen like tattered sheets...

Over the generations, Big Mom continued to receive her horses and hold them in her arms. They came in different forms and different names - like Janis Joplin, Marvin Gaye, Robert Johnson. And over the course of the story, we also hear the horses scream. Some of the band members have nightmares about the U.S. Army Generals Sheridan and Wright, two notorious leaders of the wars of subjugation in the 19th century. One day, a black limousine drives onto the Spokane reservation. The two men riding in the limo are A&R representatives from Cavalry Records. They want to sign Coyote Springs to their label. Their names are Sheridan and Wright. The nightmares continue.

The narrative of Reservation Blues is a seamless tapestry of past and present, dreams and reality. The story is told through the shifting viewpoints of its characters, their inner thoughts, diaries, dreams, newspaper articles, interviews, police reports, flashbacks, and more. When the band receives form rejection letters from record companies, the experience is just another generic incident in a life of HUD houses and commodity food. They even call a few companies in Seattle, like Sub Pop. Sub Pop discovered Nirvana and a lot of other bands, but they never returned Thomas' phone calls. They just mailed form rejections. Black letters on white paper, just like commodity cans. U.S.D.A. PORK. SORRY WE ARE UNABLE TO USE THIS. JUST ADD WATER. WE DON'T LISTEN TO UNSOLICITED DEMOS. POWDERED MILK. THANK YOU FOR YOUR INTEREST. HEAT AND SERVE.

Alexie's gift for ironic detail adds humor as well as unforgettable images. Victor, the guitar player, still wears clothes from the disco era. He won a few thousand dollars in Reno back in 1979, just after he graduated from high school. He bought a closet full of silk shirts and polyester pants and has never had any money since then to buy anything new. He hasn't gained any weight in 13 years, but the clothes are tattered and barely hold to his body. His wardrobe makes him an angry man. Alexie sets the mood for a scene with a songwriter's gift for economy. As two drunken band members leave a Manhattan bar, "the bartender watched them leave, cleaned the glasses they had drunk from, and erased their presence from that part of the world."

Reservation Blues is Alexie's first novel. His past work, which includes a 1993 short story collection titled The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven, garnered tremendous praise and awards such as the PEN/Hemingway Best Book of Fiction. This novel should establish his place as one of America's most gifted writers, period. n

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