by Joy Ralph
Sometimes reading Sherman Alexie is like being hit between the eyes with a mallet of emotion and awareness. Other times, reading Sherman Alexie is like being hit solidly over the heart with a cudgel of emotion and awareness. The odd thing about it is how even a solid and prolonged thumping fails to be a deterrent; if anything, the opposite is true.
Blasphemy, his 2012 short story collection, is a case in point. It speaks casually of sacred things that travel under the disguise of the mundane and interstitial; it reveals the damage some people carry underneath a too-easily-dismissed exterior weariness and reserve. It points out problematic cultural frictions without scolding but without apology. Its tone is so matter-of-fact in places that deeply heartbreaking events can sneak past your mental defenses to shake your emotional core.
To say “some people” is to be part of the problem, though. Alexie is a Spokane/Coeur d’Alene Indian, and his writing is grounded in his identity. Growing up in Wellpinit, WA on the reservation, and spending his adulthood in Seattle has given him insight into a wide spectrum of situations, living arrangements and personal compromises, and he is brilliant at sharing what he sees. The stories in Blasphemy include some of my favorites, and all the pieces included in the collection are well worth reading. I recommend the book entirely.
One of the most poignant pieces is a reflective story called “Breaking and Entering.” The title is accurate in its description; the story describes the deadly interruption of a household robbery and the deeply unsettling aftermath. I cannot call it a happy story, nor does it have a happy ending. It is a consummately human story: complex, fraught with ambiguity, and multifaceted. It contains a beautiful description of an ugly set of events and manages the difficult task of being both unflinching and kind. The story asks more questions than it answers, and is thought-provoking in the way of the best art.
Another standout is “Basic Training,” a wrenching account of family dynamics. Deuce is the junior partner of a traveling show. He and his father operate one of the last few Donkey Basketball franchises, and they follow a dwindling circuit of small-town school gymnasiums where the infrastructure is such that an evening of hooves charging up and down the court won’t add too much to the damage. While his father expects him to continue the business, Deuce wants out badly enough to join the military to escape. The situation will resonate with anyone who has had a rough time separating from parents and their expectations, or gathering up the courage to make drastic changes in their course of life. Both funny and tragic, the ending showcases the absurdity that so often accompanies difficult times and decisions. The wreckage of the consequences is somehow laid out without bitterness.
A masterful and lyrical conclusion to the collection is the luminous “What You Pawn I Will Redeem.” Narrator and tale-spinner Jackson Jackson is a Spokane Indian, a pan-handler living homeless in Seattle, and the alcoholic leader of his street family. By happenstance one noon he spots a family heirloom in the window of a somewhat mysterious pawn shop. However, his grandmother’s stolen dance regalia now carries a steep price tag of one thousand dollars. Jackson and crew have a total of five dollars from their morning’s efforts. The shop owner agrees to a bargain, though, and gives him 24 hours to obtain the money. Jackson Jackson is a truly talented storyteller and his narrative is mythic, or perhaps mystic, as he describes his serial attempts at money-making and the encounters he has on his quest through the course of the day. Jackson’s life is difficult, but equanimity and self-possession are two of his defining characteristics, and his unflappable response to the gains and losses he experiences results in a dreamlike inevitability to events as they unfold. Some of Jackson’s choices might seem strange in isolation, but they all seem perfectly logical within the flow of the story. The end remains poetically ambiguous while providing a believable, thought-provoking resolution.
Blasphemy contains another twenty-eight stories of varying lengths; the above trio are on the lengthier side of the group. Others are more snapshots, like “The Vow,” which eavesdrops on a couple lovingly tormenting each other about their declining years, or “Breakfast,” a two-page meditation on the gulf that can develop between fathers and sons. Alexie’s characters often share some autobiographical traits, and the resulting familiarity leads to an emotional openness that avoids becoming trite or maudlin. More than once I found myself mentally returning to a story some time after I’d finished it, as emotions surfaced and pieces clicked into place. Alexie’s characters are not always likable, but they are sound, dynamic and real enough to linger in the mind and heart.