March 25, 2013

Starting Sherman Alexie

Back in January, I announced a reading project based on START HERE: READ YOUR WAY INTO 25 AMAZING AUTHORS. I began the project right away, but since I read three suggestions for each of the first two authors, while also reading various other books, it's taken me a while to get to the point of reporting back.

The first recommended author is Sherman Alexie, whose work is championed in an essay by Kevin Smokler. I've heard Alexie several times on radio and podcasts, and I always find him an entertaining speaker, so I was glad for an impetus to finally read some of his books.

After reading one of Alexie's short story collections and two novels, I can say that he's a good writer with a style that doesn't suit my tastes very well. Sometimes it worked better than others, as I'll explain. Here's the reading pathway for Sherman Alexie, and my reactions:

THE LONE RANGER AND TONTO FISTFIGHT IN HEAVEN is a collection of short stories, most of them set on the Spokane Indian Reservation and featuring the same set of characters. I like Alexie's writing style, humor, and characters, but the majority of the stories didn't grab me. In general, I prefer novels to short fiction, and while reading this book, I was feeling eager to move on to a novel-length work by Alexie so I could see his talents at work with a stronger plot arc and more room to develop.

A few of the stories did appeal to me more than the rest. Many of the stories have surreal or fantastical elements, but "Distances" is the most removed from reality, set in a post-apocalyptic world. "Jesus Christ's Half-Brother Is Alive and Well on the Spokane Indian Reservation" is a beautiful story about a troubled man who adopts an orphaned child after saving him from a fire. The story that stood out for me most is "The Approximate Size of My Favorite Tumor," (PDF) a sad and funny tale about how a wife reacts to her husband's cancer.

After reading this, I watched the movie Smoke Signals. Alexie wrote the screenplay based on the stories in this collection, especially "This Is What It Means To Say Phoenix, Arizona." It was interesting to see the events acted out on screen and to notice where details and lines from other stories were woven in.

→ At the start of RESERVATION BLUES, blues guitarist Robert Johnson arrives on the Spokane Indian Reservation in 1992, seeking an escape from the pact he made with the devil. His guitar ends up with a group of friends from the reservation (characters who also appear in THE LONE RANGER AND TONTO FISTFIGHT IN HEAVEN), and as a result, they start a band. The novel follows the band's successes and failures and the effect these have on their friendships and their relationships with other people.

I found this to be a reasonably good, entertaining story, though I wasn't wild about the rambling style. Any time a new character appears, there's a long exploration of their backstory, and this sometimes made me impatient. Much time is spent inside the characters' dreams, which I'm not a big fan of. As you might expect from a book that supposes Robert Johnson really did make a deal with the devil and didn't really die in 1938, certain things that happen in the story are of a magical or mystical nature. This worked okay for me but will be a turnoff for some readers.

I liked the book's characters and felt an emotional connection to them. The story was sometimes sad and sometimes funny, a combination I appreciate. This is the best of the Alexie work that I've read, and I would consider reading another novel of his in this vein.

→ I was really looking forward to reaching THE ABSOLUTELY TRUE DIARY OF A PART-TIME INDIAN. Since it's a young adult novel, I expected it would be more focused than RESERVATION BLUES, and since I've heard a lot of praise from adults, I thought it would have enough substance for grownup sensibilities. Alas, the book was a big disappointment.

I did like the main character, a geeky boy who's an outcast on his reservation and makes himself more unpopular by transferring to the local white school in order to get a better education. But I found the plot simplistic and not especially interesting.

I imagine the book would appeal to middle school readers, and it's certainly valuable to see characters from backgrounds that aren't usually represented in fiction. I'm going to have to go against prevailing opinion, though, and disrecommend this book for adults.

I wish I were starting my Starting Here project with a more enthusiastic set of reviews! But I'm glad to have satisfied my curiosity about Sherman Alexie, and I want to be clear that I only read three of his books because I found things to like in all of them.

Good Stuff Out There:

→ Juliette Wade suggests strategies for Dealing with Chronological Breaks in Your Story: "instead of focusing on the flow of external events, which might make me feel obligated to include them all, I turn inward to the state of mind that my character is in when the time break is happening."

1 comment:

Juliette Wade said...

Thanks a lot for the link, Lisa! :) What an interesting post.

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