gave my little brother a copy of Sherman Alexie’s
collection of short stories, The Toughest Indian In The World,
for his 14th birthday and bought another copy for myself. A week
after my brother had called to thank me enthusiastically for the
book and inform me that Alexie, who is speaking Saturday at 7:30
p.m. at the downtown Salt Lake City Public Library, had made his
list of heroes (a list he carries around with him everywhere, comprised
of such notables as Jimi Hendrix, Andy Kaufman, the creators of
“Jackass” and Shakespeare), I finally found the time
to indulge in Alexie’s always-striking prose.
striking prose of “Assimilation,” the first story in
this collection, described adulterous, biracial, lesbian sex. I
thought of my impressionable little brother and began to re-evaluate
his enthusiastic gratitude for his first taste of Alexie’s
I read on, Alexie’s beautifully wrought accounts of fluid,
polymorphous, ultimately and supremely redemptive sexuality brought
tears to my eyes. I thought of my brother, facing the brutality
of teenage years, the showy homophobia, the forced machismo and
thought, “This is so good for him.”
My next thought was, “Dad would kill me.”
My brother and I frequently talk about literature, and the conversations
veer toward Alexie over and over again. “There’s just
something about the way he says things…,” my brother
remarks, trailing off in a way that indicates he shares my intoxication
with one of America’s most innovative literary voices.
My brother pauses. “Is he…gay?” I can tell that
in this question rides the confusion of a thousand images of the
fierce American Indian warrior shattering from the blast of the
realization that there may be homosexuals among them.
“I think he might tell you that sexuality is more complex
than being ‘straight’ or ‘gay,’” I
tell him, and his face tells me that the word “fag”
is looming large and heavy in his mind, but he shrugs it off. This
is so good for him.
The “toughest Indian in the world” may not turn out
to be what you had in mind before you read Alexie. And that’s
I was first treated to Sherman Alexie through the film “Smoke
Signals,” which won the Sundance Film Festival Audience Award
in 1998. Alexie wrote the screenplay based on his collection The
Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven. It thrust him into literary
Alexie’s voice, originating in the experience of growing up
on the Spokane Indian reservation, is that of the American Indian
storyteller, drawing on ancient oral traditions. But his characters
move around in our world, the world of corporate luncheons and political
in/correctness and fast-food drive-thrus.
The combination is a breed of magical realism recalling that of
Gabriel Garcia-Marquez or Jeanette Winterson, but thoroughly American.
It cuts to the heart of our national shame that has yet to be recognized
as such. And it does all this with a humor so rich and natural that
you remember whole paragraphs of Alexie’s prose vividly after
only reading them once.
Tickets are free to the event which is part of the 2003 Dewey Lecture
Series. But unfortunately, auditorium seats have been sold out.
You can still come and hopefully watch the video feed—it will
be well worth it. After all, what’s good for my little brother
is good for you.