The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven, 1993
The Toughest Indian in the World: Stories, 2000
Ten Little Indians, 2003
Reservation Blues, 1995
Indian Killer, 1996
I Would Steal Horses, 1992
Old Shirts and New Skins, 1993
The Man Who Loves Salmon, 1998
One Stick Song, 2000
Smoke Signals, 1998
The Business of Fancydancing, 2002
The Business of Fancydancing: Stories and Poems, 1992
First Indian on the Moon, 1993
The Summer of the Black Widow, 1996 (poems and short prose)
Sherman Joseph Alexie, Jr., is a prolific writer, most of his work reflecting the nature of life on the Spokane/Coeur d’Alene Indian Reservation in Wellpinit, Washington, and the life of down-and-out American Indians in cities such as Seattle and Spokane. His poetry and short fiction are both marked by a robust humor, which ranges from slapstick to a dry self-deprecation; it is this characteristic tone that generally engages readers and stays with them after the book is finished.
Alexie was born on October 7, 1966, near Spokane, Washington, the son of Sherman Joseph and Lilian Agnes (Cox) Alexie. After graduating from high school in 1985, he attended Gonzaga University for two years, dropping out briefly. Once back in Spokane, he enrolled in Washington State University and graduated in 1991.
In 1991, Alexie also received his first high honor: He was named a Poetry Fellow of the Washington State Arts Commission. A year later, he received funds from the National Endowment for the Arts to help him complete his first published volume of poems, I Would Steal Horses, and a collection of poetry and short fiction, The Business of Fancydancing.
The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven marked the beginning of widespread public acclaim for Alexie, being reviewed by the American poet Reynolds Price in The New York Times Review of Books. Generally remarked on was Alexie’s distinctive narrative voice and somber outlook, as well as his joining of contemporary references (for example, basketball and Diet Pepsi) to the search for lost American Indian culture. Although his references to contemporary products have been interpreted as an attempt on Alexie’s part to imitate the style of mid-1980’s novelists Tama Janowitz and Bret Easton Ellis, it probably is more accurately an ironic trope. In exchange for their culture, Alexie seems to suggest, American Indians have been given Diet Pepsi.
One of his more disturbing stories, “Distances,” is a post-nuclear holocaust story about life on the reservation: people dying of radiation sickness, mutated plant life, and the breakdown of the tribal council’s authority. In this story, the reader is forced to confront the historical apocalypse that brought equally profound changes to American Indians.
In much of Alexie’s other fiction, individual Spokane/Coeur d’Alene Indians are unable to pull themselves out of the mire of history, suffering from a variety of physical, psychological, and spiritual complaints. The young basketball star Julius Windmaker in “The Only Traffic Signal on the Reservation Doesn’t Flash Red Anymore” is unable to use his athletic talent to escape the cycle of despair, and he ends the story a shambling drunk. In “Because My Father Always Said He Was the Only Indian Who Saw Jimi Hendrix Play ‘The Star Spangled Banner’ at Woodstock,” the narrator describes himself as “half . . . formed by my father’s whiskey sperm, the other half formed by my mother’s vodka egg.” The father in the story can maintain his self-esteem only by listening to the lost voices of other marginalized peoples–Jimi Hendrix and Hank Williams, the black man and the poor hillbilly. Like many other Alexie characters, he is in search of something he cannot find, let alone articulate, but which drives him to alienate his son and wife.
A recurring character, Thomas Builds-the-Fire, in many ways represents Alexie himself. Builds-the-Fire is a young man who keeps telling his stories even though none of the other people on the reservation listen to him. In “The Trial of Thomas Builds-the-Fire,” the storyteller is charged with committing murders that had taken place on May 16, 1858. Builds-the-Fire becomes the symbol of all Indians in modern culture, on trial before a white judge and jury. He offers the only defense he is able: a story in which he is alternately a wild horse, an Indian outlaw named Qualchan, and finally a warrior named Wild Coyote. He is found guilty.
Some of Alexie’s characters reappear in Reservation Blues, although Alexie’s taste for the surrealistic in fiction is more pronounced in this volume. For example, in “Reservation Blues,” Victor, a modern Spokane Indian, meets the blues legend Robert Johnson (Johnson died in the 1930’s) wandering across the reservation.
The artists depicted in Alexie’s fiction are either unheard, marginalized figures or, like Johnson, appreciated only by a restricted coterie of aficionados. It is probably true that Alexie’s self-created social role is similar. Like the stories of the storyteller Builds-the-Fire, Alexie’s stories are essentially irrelevant to a people who, as Alexie reminds the reader again and again, face rampant discrimination and economic oppression off the reservation and hopelessness and joblessness on it. Only the inner drive to build a literary fire, more likely a beacon than a consuming fire, keeps the spirit of the writer and his people alive.
Indian Killer is a tragic novel. It begins with the virtual kidnapping of a newborn American Indian baby so that a white couple can have a child. When he grows up, John Smith feels alienated but cannot rejoin his people because he does not know his mother’s tribe. He moves to Seattle and decides to become an Indian warrior, killing white people as a form of initiation.
One Stick Song is a collection of poems that function as a personal memoir. Its poems are bracketed by two extended autobiographical fragments: “The Unauthorized Biography of Me,” which conveys the content of Alexie’s mind and spirit through the tone of its observations, and “Sugar Town,” a lament for and tribute to his father, as well as a meditation on his own growth toward maturity.