Book Review: Readings
Reviewed by Jessa Crispin, Fri., July 18, 2003
Ten Little Indiansby Sherman Alexie
Grove Press, 243 pp., $24
Sherman Alexie might be going soft. Underneath the humor and adept storytelling of his previous novels and short-story collections was always a thin line of rage. But now in his latest, Ten Little Indians, he's working with hope and redemption. Not that the subject matter is all that cheery. The nine short stories are populated by Spokane Indians living in and around Seattle, and there is plenty of terrorism, dying babies, alcoholism, father-son issues, and homelessness to go around.
The hope springs from the theme of family running throughout. Families struggle to stay together, and families fall apart. In "Do Not Go Gentle," a father wielding as a talisman a giant dildo called "Chocolate Thunder" watches over his dying infant child. A wife's infidelity threatens to break apart a marriage in "Do You Know Where I Am?" In the harshest of the stories, "Can I Get a Witness?," a woman walks away from a terrorist attack hoping that her husband and sons think she has died. When writing about a woman who hates her children, it's a thin line between making her believable and making her completely unsympathetic. The strength of this book lies in the characters. Alexie writes them with such compassion that even if they abandon their children, it becomes understandable.
September 11 keeps creeping up here, but not in a flag-waving sort of way. One character rails against the media's assertion that the victims in the World Trade Center were all innocents, and an Indian in "Flight Patterns" finds himself searched at every airport, a consequence of his nonwhiteness. "Maybe William should have worn beaded vests when he traveled. Maybe he should have thrown casino chips into the crowd." It's refreshing for an author to mention the attacks and not to hear "The Star-Spangled Banner" playing in the background.
The only real problem with Ten Little Indians is its poor organization, with two of the weaker stories right up front, making the collection slow to get into. There is only one work that makes you wonder how it found inclusion: "The Life and Times of Estelle Walks Above." With its quirky lists, precocious structure, and pointless style tricks, it feels like Alexie was desperate for acceptance in McSweeney's. Otherwise, he mostly tackles big issues, with one story including a suicide bomber and several others dealing in racism, but as opposed to some of his earlier efforts, it never feels as if he's preaching. There's still anger, but the author has also mastered subtlety, giving that anger softer edges.