"The Toughest Indian in the World" by Sherman Alexie

A new collection of tough, angry, dirty, funny, superbly accomplished stories by the Native American writer.

Published June 5, 2000 6:00PM (EDT)

"In order to survive, to thrive, I literally have to be white for fifty-seven minutes of every hour," says Etta Joseph, the 118-year-old Spokane Indian star of "Dear John Wayne," the most crowd-pleasing short story in Sherman Alexie's powerful and thorny new collection, "The Toughest Indian in the World." Etta is speaking to her interviewer, a pompous, oh-so-white man who might be best described as the Frank Burns of anthropology. "How about the other three minutes?" this guy asks. "That, sir, is when I get to be Indian," answers Etta, "and you have no idea, no concept, no possible way of knowing what happens in those three minutes."

Daunting words for a non-Indian reviewer: three minutes. One-twentieth is off-limits, then. And the rest? At times, you feel you're getting it, humming along, borne on Alexie's white-water prose, so colloquial, so funny, driftwoods of poetry spinning smart and fine -- then he throws the oars away: "Suddenly, everything looked dangerous ... morning dew boiled and cooked green leaves ... the vanishing point was the tip of a needle."

So Alexie writes in "The Sin Eaters," the angriest and most apocalyptic story of the bunch. It's as bitter as chicory, reminiscent of his 1996 novel "Indian Killer," in which an Indian serial killer not only slays whites but scalps them, too. "The Sin Eaters" also plays kid brother to Margaret Atwood's "The Handmaid's Tale," with, in this case, Indian purebreds corralled into a terrifying Aldous Huxley-ish facility and forced to reproduce. "They wanted our blood. They would always want our blood," explains Jonah, the boy who is damned into a sort of fertility slavery. A metaphor for America's history of genocide? A slap at how p.c. whites lionize the "pure" Indians of today?

Who knows? But what fuels these stories is rage -- rage decanted through black humor. ("Crazy Horse didn't need Tums," cracks one character. "Native American," says another, "there's an oxymoron for you.") Rage, black humor and lots of sex. Straight, gay and combo platter, but usually somehow pointing toward communion.

The most breathtaking use of carnality-as-connection occurs in the title story, which was the best entry in the New Yorker's "Writers for the 21st Century" special issue last year. A citified Spokane Indian (Alexie is both Spokane and Coeur d'Alene) picks up a hitchhiker, a scarred Lummi boxer, and through their interaction feels his soul ache and swoon back to his tribal past. "I watched him rise from earth to sky and become a new constellation," Alexie writes. "I travelled upriver toward the place where I was born and will someday die." To grasp the context of the "travelling upriver" line, you need to know how much of a role salmon plays in Alexie's work -- salmon as Northwest Indian tribal totem, as symbol of birth and death, as archetype of impossible odds. As the father in "Toughest Indian" tells his son: "Love you or hate you, white people will shoot you in the heart. Even after all these years, they'll still smell the salmon on you, the dead salmon, and that will make white people dangerous."

OK, this must be said: Alexie's prose can get fishy. The puns and fables and wildness work when he sticks to the voice of Thomas Builds-the-Fire, the beautifully blithe creation in his 1993 story collection "The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven," and in his acclaimed 1998 film "Smoke Signals." But overstress that tone and the only Tom left is Robbins -- or Douglas Adams or Kurt Vonnegut. In other words, things get cloying. In "The Sin Eaters," for instance, a guard says to the boy, "Jonah, you can call me Ishmael. You see, we all have our whales." And in "South by Southwest," a flat joke about a bank robber, did Alexie really have to dub the love interest Salmon Boy?

But once you know that in real life Alexie is a poetry-slam champion and a veritable performance artist on his book tours (he's renowned for pretending to be a drunken Indian heckler), the excess makes sense. Some of this stuff probably works better live. Indeed, you can almost hear the laugh track -- that's a compliment -- in the tour de force "Dear John Wayne." In that story we learn, via the transcript of the interview Etta Joseph gives her scandalized interlocutor, that not only was she an extra in John Ford's 1956 movie "The Searchers" but she also slept with the Duke. It's all curiously healing and hilarious, seeing as the off-screen Wayne is a kind, sensitive sort, while his on-screen character, Ethan Edwards, was perhaps the most anti-Indian racist in cinema history. Alexie takes every chance and then some: "'My real name is Marion,'" said John Wayne as he slid the condom over his erect penis. His hands were shaking."

Oh my. Thing is, Alexie manages to make their lovemaking touching in spite of the lampoon. And that's because he has such a radiant grasp of the meaning of ceremony; watch how he repeats certain phrases ("I'm back") and various images (salmon, stars) like dance steps at a powwow. In one of his most affecting stories, "Saint Junior," he gives us a retired pro basketball player named, pricelessly, Roman Gabriel Fury: "Given a choice, he'd rather have been a buffalo hunter and soldier killer than the point guard for the Lakers, but there was no such choice, of course." So Fury pursues his humanness, his Indianness, as fiercely and creatively as he can. Just like Alexie.

By Katharine Whittemore

Katharine Whittemore is the editor of American Movie Classics magazine.

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