The Story of Man
War DancesSherman Alexie
(Grove Press · $23)
At its heart, Sherman Alexie's newest collection of stories, War Dances, is an exploration of manhood in the 21st century. His characters struggle with the legacy of their fathers, worry over how to be fathers themselves, and stumble along paths constructed of desire and duty.
The title story, and possibly the best, follows a man whose mysterious illness causes him to recall the dying days of his father, who succumbed to the ravages of alcoholism. Though the narrator has constructed his life in opposition to his dad’s, he is filled with a rough love for him, a need to preserve the lessons learned about what it means to be a man and Native American. In turn, he is tender to his own sons, careful and giving.
All of the stories are told from a first-person male perspective, from the gay-basher in “The Senator’s Son” to a man who's been forced into violence in “Breaking and Entering.” There’s a kind of nonchalance that characterizes Alexie’s writing that often belies the intensity of the subject matter. It’s not that his narrators don’t care about what’s going on, but all of them have established a distance from it, tonally and with their actions. Though the stuff of much of the stories is dark, violent and sexual, the approach is matter-of-fact. Alexie is an entrenched reporter, telling stories that need no hyperbole.
Perhaps because of this, the voices of the narrators tend to blend together. They are all smart but bruised, careful yet strong. It’s entirely possible to read several stories and not notice, aside from the change in setting and plot, that you’re in a different piece, such as when two different narrators use the phrase "Don't get me wrong," which is worn-out in the first place.
It's moves like that that are the weakest points of War Dances. For all of the book's strengths, many are sunk by Alexie's predilection to say too much. Stories that move powerfully enough through much of the tale are concluded with summations, detailing what the metaphors mean and what characters want and how things end up. These epilogues deflate the power of the form. Short stories allow us to revel in minutia and finite worlds. The moves toward establishing Meaning are often clumsy and unnecessary, as if the author doesn't quite trust the reader enough to get it.
There is loveliness in War Dances. While his hospitalized father chants a healing song, the title story's narrator notices the smile of one of the previously cold nurses. “Sometimes, even after all of these years, she could still be surprised by her work. She still marveled at the infinite and ridiculous faith of other people.” And in “The Senator’s Son,” the titular character discusses the dissolution of his relationship with his best friend, who comes out as gay. “Over the next year or so, I must have called his house twenty times. But I always hung up when he or his parents answered. And he called my private line more than twenty times, but would stay on the line and silently wait for me to speak. And then it stopped. We became rumors to each other.”
Moments like these are Alexie's strength, best seen in some of his other work, such as "This is What it Means to Say Phoenix, Arizona," which was later made into the movie Smoke Signals. He has legions of fans for a reason, and while this entry may not win any new converts, it probably won't lose many, either.
Sherman Alexie reads from War Dances
Thursday, Oct. 15, 7 p.m.
Woodward Hall, UNM Campus
$5, $3 student, free with book purchase