Ten Little Indians
by Sherman Alexie
Published by Grove Press
336 pages, 2003
If Sherman Alexie falls in a forest, and there's nobody there to hear him, does he make a funny sound?
Reviewed by David Abrams
If there's a bone in Sherman Alexie's body that isn't funny, I'd like to know where it is. The left metatarsal, perhaps; or maybe the coccyx. Alexie's skeleton is made of wiggly-giggly stuff and it makes for infectious laughter wherever he goes. Take a look at the author photo on the back of his latest book, Ten Little Indians, and you'll see what I mean. His eyes are squeezed shut and his mouth's wide open in mid-guffaw; the teeth practically leap off the dustjacket.
That laughter often leaps right back onto the page. Alexie's sentences are jazzed with jokes, the paragraphs pop with the pleasure of puns.
I've read The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven and laughed; I've watched the movie Smoke Signals and slapped my knee a couple of times; I've seen Alexie give a reading and fallen out of my chair -- he puts most stand-up comics to shame with his energetic improvisational riffs.
Then why is it that I barely cracked a grin while reading Ten Little Indians? Has Alexie suddenly turned deadly, dully serious? Has he lost the gas which fueled his engine?
The nine stories in the collection -- the "missing" tenth Indian is perhaps an ironic smack to the politically incorrect Mother Goose rhyme -- offer less jokes than usual, but are still filled with the usual Alexie barbs which prick at our comfort zone of race, gender and politics. Somehow, Alexie's trademark "change-the-world" sting and undercurrent of anger are removed along with the jokes. He excels at using the medium for his message and when the humor is gone so is some of the impact.
Ten Little Indians shows a much more sober Alexie at work. "I could be deadly serious and deadly funny at the same time," says the narrator of "Do Not Go Gentle." Not unlike Alexie himself.
Yes, there are still vapor trails of the usual energetic wit and verbal loop-de-loops -- If a poet falls in a forest, and there's nobody there to hear him, does he make a metaphor or simile? ("The Search Engine") -- and I still marvel at his apparent ease of weaving prose, character, plot and thought. But this is a more thoughtful, contemplative fiction than we're used to seeing from Alexie.
One story, "Can I Get a Witness?," takes an interesting leap on the third page. Until that point, the unnamed, unhappily-married wife sitting in a Seattle café had been babbling in a quirky, breathless monologue about her suddenly-missing waiter, the city's 113 consecutive days of rain and the "male cacophony" of her household. This punchy opening is one of the few times I found myself laughing aloud during Ten Little Indians. Then, in one sentence, there's a shocking episode of sudden violence (I won't spoil it any further) and it swings the whole tone of the story in a new direction. I literally felt the laughter freeze in my throat when I read that sentence.
Alexie takes a risk in that story and it eventually pays off in what is the best piece of fiction inspired by 9-11 I've yet to read. Typical of most stories in Ten Little Indians, it gathers strength as it rolls along. "Can I Get a Witness?" ends its soaring flight by asking "How many loveless people walk among the barely loved?"
The stories, all of them set in Seattle, are populated with the barely loved on a quest for the missing puzzle pieces of their lives. They dream of greatness or, at the very least, an escape from mediocrity. A middle-aged forest ranger decides to seek a new career as basketball star; a college student tracks down her idol, a Native American poet who disappeared from public view 30 years ago after publishing one small collection of verse; married couples cope with infidelity; sons argue with their fathers; and everywhere hearts are in a constant break-mend-break cycle.
There are few characters who stand out -- like Thomas Builds-the-Fire or Lester Falls Apart from earlier stories -- and sometimes they seem like mere chess pieces in the way Alexie plays with language and message, as in this description from what turns out to be the most magnificent story in the collection, "What You Pawn I Will Redeem:"
Junior is a Colville, but there are about 199 tribes that make up the Colville, so he could be anything. He's good-looking, though, like he just stepped out of some "Don't Litter the Earth" public-service advertisement. He's got those great big cheekbones that are like planets, you know, with little moons orbiting around them. He gets me jealous, jealous, and jealous. If you put Junior and me next to each other, he's the Before Columbus Arrived Indian, and I'm the After Columbus Arrived Indian. I am living proof of the horrible damage that colonialism has done to us Skins.
Yes, most of the characters are Native American -- members of Alexie's own Spokane-Coeur d'Alene tribe -- but race is inconsequential in a collection that's practically colorblind. Yes, there is drinking; and yes, there is tribal fancydancing and talk of ancient powwows; but the tone is more all-encompassing than anything Alexie has done in the past. This effort to achieve universality might be the reason behind some of the book's seriousness, and sometimes the strain of sermonizing shows, but the final effect is one of a hard sock to the gut. Sherman Alexie is deadly serious about being funny. | August 2003
David Abrams is a January Magazine contributing editor. He has written for Esquire, Glimmer Train Stories, The Greensboro Review, The Readerville Journal and other literary magazines.