Monday, March 3, 2008

Reservation Blues — Sherman Alexie

Picking up a new book can sometimes be a challenge, especially if it means acclimating yourself to a new author's voice, their style, their bad structural habits or overly detailed prose. The more you read, the easier it becomes to distinguish style, to discover the many varied echelons of being a Creator of Stories. Given this, in my opinion, there is probably no voice or style in contemporary fiction more poetic or easily identifiable than that of Sherman Alexie.

A Spokane Indian from eastern Washington (known most notably for his short story collection, The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven, which was later adapted into the film, Smoke Signals), Sherman Alexie has an uncanny ability to ignite words with such vivid tenacity towards imagery that opening up one of his books sometimes feels more like looking at a collection of paintings than reading words on a page. Plot is often simplefull of humanity and yet wrought with magical realism; there is nothing out of the realm of possibility for the characters of Alexie's world, whose dreams are merely extensions of day-to-day reality.

His novel, Reservation Blues, builds on to the lives of Thomas Builds-the-Fire and Victor Joseph, who are first presented in Tonto. Thomas is kind-hearted, but talks a little too much, and has stories for everything, which are sometimes true, sometimes not; Victor, along with his close friend Junior Polatkin, are usually drunk and/or causing some sort of havoc on the reservation or in Thomas' life.

But everything changes when Robert Johnson, a guitar player from the 20's who died in the late 30's, arrives on the rez with a magical guitar in hand, hoping to escape someone called 'The Gentleman' who has control of his soul and who once bestowed on him the power of Music. He passes his guitar to Thomas, who then gives it to Victor in exchange for his and Junior's help in starting up a band. This band is Coyote Springs, and despite the boys having close to no musical talent whatsoever, they hold nothing but the highest hopes of musical stardom, as well as a guarantee for drama.

Thus begins Alexie's tale of Indian dreams: some lost, some only just being discovered. With the help of two Flathead Indian sisters, Chess and Checkers Warm Water, the band takes a running leap across the States, free from the reservation but now facing the reality of the White Man's World.

Full of fantasy and dreams, imbued with wit and love, there is also an urgency in the sadness that lies within Alexie's story. The truth regarding the conditions of life on the rez, the place of religion in the saving of these Indian souls, the effect of alcohol on an Indian's sense of being, their families, their lovers... It all resonates with such power and honesty that Reservation Blues becomes so much more than a simple story of poetry, friendship and the desire for success. It is commentary on the American Dream and the limitations forced upon its earliest inhabitants, the pain that comes with accepting or transcending tradition, culture, Home and race.

Alexie uses all aspects of art in his writing: the music is there, between the lines and in the flow of his prose and poetry, and you soar when reading. The book is less about events than it is about art and language and cultural identity, so this read may not be for those who simply wish to be entertained. The humor is subtle and beautiful, but could easily go over some people's heads. The ending is a bit anti-climactic, but if your expectations for some sort of shocker are low, you'll probably handle the dramatic 'letdown' fairly well. Just take your time.

I'd recommend looking into one of Alexie's short stories to see if you enjoy is style. If you do, it is consistent throughout his work, so you're likely to enjoy Reservation Blues. If poetry and subtlety and a highly ethereal experience don't interest you and you just want some mindless action, skip this and go read The Da Vinci Code, again.


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