I recently joined a blog discussion about the use of the term ‘uneven’ with reference to short story collections, at Mark Athitakis’ American Fiction Notes. Folks were bandying back and forth about how critics sometimes cite uneven-ness as a flaw without elaborating whether they mean a collection’s subject matter or tone is not cohesive (which I wouldn’t consider a flaw provided each story succeeds on its own merits) or that the quality of its contents is variable. And now, mulling over Sherman Alexie’s War Dances, winner of the Pen Faulkner, the term uneven comes to mind in the latter sense: some poems and stories in War Dances are of a much higher quality than others even though each entertains.
The excellent poems “Go, Ghost, Go,” and “Food Chain,” and short stories “War Dances” and “Salt,” draw heavily on Alexie’s own biography and background and although the rest of the collection is good, it is simply not as great as these. “War Dances” in particular, is a fabulous story – tender, ironic and innovative in structure – about a son trying to comfort his dying father in a hospital where “Everyone was uninsured and unblanketed,” while coming to terms with the man whom he would always feel closest to but “had most disappointed me.” Alexie is an economical writer and a witty one – he can do an awful lot with very little, nailing his theme in a single line, where lesser artists may take pages of exposition and circumlocution to get to the point. He’s also experimental in form, playful with short-shorts and question and answer formats.
Several times in the book he satirizes those who are “addicted to the indigenous,” and one senses that Alexie himself wants to break free of his cultural heritage in his work. It can be a pain in the ass to be perceived as the voice of your particular ‘minority’ (the way that African American authors are expected to only write about the African American experience, or the way that I, to a lesser extent obviously, am sometimes pestered to say something in a Scottish accent), and I think Alexie must be under particular pressure given America’s history. Therefore it’s ironic that the best parts of War Dances are where he addresses the Native American experience even if he does so aslant, and the weakest – for example “The Ballad of Paul Nonetheless” or, in particular in “The Senator’s Son” – are where one feels the story didn’t rise organically but was constructed to make a political point.
In “Salt“, a newspaper editor tells the main character, a reservation Indian intern, not to stress so much over writing obituaries because “All these people are dead. The dead will not pressure you.” The intern blinks in disbelief, as does Alexie, and as do I. For some the burden of history is inescapable: we carry our dead with us, they sit on our shoulders and judge what we do or do not do.
(As an aside, Alexie is also a performance artist and comedian and having only read “Invisible Dog on a Leash” after hearing him ‘perform’ it during the Pen Faulkner ceremony, there is no doubt that hearing it had a greater impact on me than reading it. This must be a particular dilemma for an author who is an excellent conduit for his / her work: how do you make your words sing on the page as most audiences will read the prose, not hear it. Inflections and charisma has to be built in, and if it can’t then one must question whether the work itself has sufficient heft, or if the audience are reacting to the performance and not the story – the literary equivalent of smoke and mirrors. I certainly don’t think Alexie is suffering from style over substance, but I was reminded of Junot Diaz and a reading I attended last year…)