By Sherman Alexie, Grove/Atlantic, 352 pages.

By Robert Spillman

Published October 3, 1996 7:00PM (EDT)

Sherman Alexie is a Spokane/Coeur d'Alene Indian who's received much deserved praise for his wry, taut, short story collection "The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven," and for his blackly funny first novel "Reservation Blues." With the ambitious and provocative "Indian Killer," however, Alexie has arrived as one of the most potent new voices in American fiction. This multi-faceted tale is set in Seattle, a melting pot of Indians and whites, and the home of John Smith -- a tall, full-blooded Indian of an unknown tribe, raised by his loving white adoptive parents. A construction worker on "the last skyscraper in Seattle," John is a loner who hears voices, mainly that of his mentor, a Jesuit Indian who walked into the desert never to be seen again.

John feels neither Indian nor white, and he longs to lash out both at his own insensibility and in retribution for the entire history of Indian/white confrontation, "as if the world could be changed with a single gesture." He decides that this single gesture should be the random killing of a white man. After committing the bloody murder, John isn't satisfied and thinks that he needs to commit a much more brutal crime to capture the attention of white America. Some liberals and Indians are (uneasily) thrilled by this belated revenge, and everyone has an opinion about who is really behind the gruesome acts. John's violent and seemingly untraceable path crosses with a variety of well-sketched minor characters: an Indian student activist; a well-meaning white anthropologist who teaches Native American lit; a white ex-cop mystery writer who claims to be Indian and thus feels entitled to speak for all Indians; an angry young white man whose brother has been killed and who seeks revenge against all Indians; an angry young Indian whose white father beat him and who now lashes out against all white men; and a right-wing talk radio host who spreads fear of Indians after a white man is found scalped. Alexie neatly weaves them into a mesmerizing thriller packed with a righteous indignation reminiscent of James Baldwin at his best. This is a passionate, beautifully constructed and compelling novel by an extremely gifted writer.

Robert Spillman

MORE FROM Robert Spillman

Related Topics ------------------------------------------