Do you know who Sherman Alexie is?
I did not know who Sherman Alexie was until I attended a Lorrie Moore reading at the Alley Theater in Houston in January 2002. He had been really funny (funnier in person than Lorrie Moore, even), and he admitted to having a "blooming crush" on her. His best line, though, was this: "That's right, I'm not satisfied until you've been naked with my book."
It took me seven years to actually read one of his books, fully clothed though I was. I read two this weekend, making up for lost time.
Alexie is a Spokane/Coeur d'Alene Indian, and as far as I can tell, he's the most famous Native American author today. Maybe ever. Given that I can't name any others. He's speaking for them all!
The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian is a semi-autobiographical young adult novel about Arnold Spirit, Jr. (known as Junior), a a Spokane/Coeur d'Alene Indian "born with water on the brain," like Alexie. Like Alexie, he leaves the reservation to go to a high school twenty miles away where the only other Indian is the mascot. Unlike Alexie (that I know of), he's a cartoonist, and his cartoons (drawn by Ellen Forney) are peppered throughout the book to great effect.
This is a fabulous book, you guys. Junior is an incredibly likable narrator, and through his eyes, we get a good perspective on what it's like to be a poor teenage Indian growing up on a reservation, isolated from rich, white America but wanting to be a part of it all the same for all the opportunities it offers. He's very matter-of-fact about things, but it's that matter-of-fact attitude that allows Alexie to say all he wants to say without jamming it down your throat. Junior is really torn between two cultures, since he feels like an outsider in the white world but a traitor in the Indian world. There isn't actually a strong narrative drive, and that would normally turn me off, but it's a testament to Alexie's voice that I did not fucking care. The book calls it a diary, which means it's a chronicle of a life, and life just happens. It still feels coherent.
It's very funny and very sad at the same time. It makes sense that he was paired with Lorrie Moore, as they both have a gift for killing you with a one-liner: the last sentence of the second chapter is one of the most horrifyingly sad things I have ever read. Christ, it's making me tear up right now. But there are funny cartoons! Cartoons that are funny even when they're about sad things! Because that's just how Alexie (and Junior) rolls.
I loved this book, and I think everyone should read it, seriously. It won the National Book Award! I just discovered that he's writing a sequel, which makes me very happy. You can read this thing in a few hours, and you will not regret it. FIVE STARS.
Flight is neither semi-autobiographical nor young adult—technically, although the teenage protagonist and voice make it seem enough like YA. It's about Zits, a "time-traveling mass murderer." Wait, I'm getting there. Zits is a half-Indian teenager who's been bumped from foster home to foster home when he meets this guy in jail who decides to teach him to shoot random people.
And so he does...and then he starts Quantum Leaping into various people's bodies throughout time (and before you go there, Alexie is way ahead of you: the epigraph is from Slaughterhouse-Five). He gets a first-person historical perspective on Indian-white relations: sometimes he's a white guy and sometimes he's an Indian, but whenever or wherever he is, people are getting killed.
Sherman Alexie works well in a teenage voice; it allows him to question really complex ideas with very simple verbiage. Zits is not as likable as Junior, but he's still relatable because the questions he asks are ones we're always struggling to answer. What's the difference between good and evil? Why do people kill? Is it ever right to kill? Zits's timejumps form a hypnotically violent tapestry of America that makes you wonder whether the cycle of violence can ever really be broken.
The book is very short, clocking in at under 200 pages, and there's even less of an overall narrative drive; it's clear Alexie is a short story writer first and foremost. I don't think the book is really supposed to be about Zits, honestly; I think he's just the vehicle. We're supposed to follow him on his journey and learn along with him. There are thirteen pages of discussion questions at the end, I'm not even kidding.
I really liked the book, and it's a quick read. I certainly have a new perspective on Indians now. FOUR STARS.