By Sherman Alexie
Reviewed by Randy M.
This collection of twenty-two short stories came to my attention in a community college lit class a year and a half ago. I was so intrigued by it, I bought my own copy and couldn't put it down until I had finished it. The stories are all connected in some way and deal with life on the Spokane Indian Reservation. Though not specifically addressing the issue as the primary topic, alcohol abuse is part and parcel of reservation life and plays a significant role in nearly all of the stories. Here is an excerpt from one entitled A Train Is an Order of Occurrence Designed to Lead to Some Result. The first time I read it, I was struck with an overwhelming force of recognition and identification. The setup is this. Samuel Builds-the-Fire (Grandfather of Thomas) has been working as a maid in a local motel for years. On his birthday, he goes to work early only to discover that his boss is cutting back on the budget and has to let Samuel go. He starts to walk home.
"What was God but this planet's maid?" Samuel asked himself as he found himself walking to the Midway Tavern, were all the Indians drank in eight-hour shifts. Samuel hadn't ever been fired from a job and he had never been in a bar, either. He had never drunk. All his life he had watched his brothers and sisters, most of his tribe, fall into alcoholism and surrendered dreams. But today Samuel sat down at the bar, unsure of himself, frightened. "Hey, partner," the bartender said to Samuel. "Ain't seen you in here before." "Yeah," Samuel said. "Just got into town, you know?" "Where you from?" "A long way from here. Doubt you ever heard of it." "Oh, I know all about that place," the bartender said and set a cocktail napkin in front of Samuel. "So, what are you drinking, old-timer?" "I'm not sure. Do you have a menu?" The bartender laughed and laughed. Embarrassed, Samuel wanted to get up and run home. But he sat still, waited for the laughter to end. "How about I just give you a beer?" the bartender asked then, and Samuel quickly agreed. The bartender set the beer in front of Samuel; the bartender laughed and had the urge to call the local newspaper. You got to get a photographer here. This Injun is going to take his first drink. Samuel lifted the glass. It felt good and cold in his hand. He drank. Coughed. Set the glass down for a second. Lifted it again. Drank. Drank. Held the glass away from his mouth. Breathed. Breathed. He drank. Emptied the glass. Set it down gently on the bar. I understand everything, Samuel thought. He knew all about how it begins; he knew he wanted to live this way now. With each glass of beer, Samuel gained a few ounces of wisdom, courage. But after a while, he began to understand too much about fear and failure, too. At the halfway point of any drunken night, there is a moment when an Indian realizes he cannot turn back toward tradition and that he has no map to guide him toward the future. "Shit," Samuel said. It was quickly his favorite word.
In The Only Traffic Signal on the Reservation Doesn't Flash Red Anymore, two guys hanging out on a porch notice that the light isn't working. One says...
"Shit, they better fix it. Might cause an accident." We both looked at each other, looked at the traffic signal, knew that about only one car an hour passed by, and laughed our asses off. Laughed so hard that when we tried to rearrange ourselves, Adrian ended up with my ass and I ended up with his. That looked so funny that we laughed them off again and it took us most of an hour to get them back right again.
The stories are sometimes funny, sometimes grim, but always powerful. Alexie has a way of entertaining with a pleasant narrative, then wrapping it up with a poignant and often disturbing conclusion. I don't know what else to add about this book. Attempting to analyze it any further would do it, and you, a disservice. Pick it up for an enjoyable and thought provoking read.