Authors: Sherman Alexie

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

American short-story writer, novelist, and poet

Identity: American Indian (Spokane/Coeur d’Alene)

Author Works

Short Fiction:

The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven, 1993

The Toughest Indian in the World: Stories, 2000

Ten Little Indians, 2003

Long Fiction:

Reservation Blues, 1995

Indian Killer, 1996

Poetry:

I Would Steal Horses, 1992

Old Shirts and New Skins, 1993

The Man Who Loves Salmon, 1998

One Stick Song, 2000

Screenplays:

Smoke Signals, 1998

The Business of Fancydancing, 2002

Miscellaneous:

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)

Biography

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.{$I[AN]9810002030}{$I[A]Alexie, Sherman}{$I[geo]UNITED STATES;Alexie, Sherman}{$I[geo]AMERICAN INDIAN;Alexie, Sherman}{$I[tim]1966;Alexie, Sherman}

Sherman Alexie

(Marion Ettlinger)

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.

BibliographyAlexie, Sherman. “Sherman Alexie, Literary Rebel: An Interview.” Interview by John Bellante and Carl Bellante. Bloomsbury Review 14 (May/June, 1994): 14. Published before any of his long fiction appeared, this interview touches on important aspects of Alexie’s “minimalism” (a term he does not care for), the “holy trinity of me,” and various thematic issues.Alexie, Sherman. “Sending Cinematic Smoke Signals: An Interview with Sherman Alexie.” Interview by Dennis West. CINEASTE 23, no. 4 (1998): 28-32. Discusses both the film Smoke Signals and short stories in The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven, followed by an in-depth interview with Alexie about his early influences and work.Andrews, Scott. “A New Road and a Dead End in Sherman Alexie’s Reservation Blues.” Arizona Quarterly 63, no. 2 (Summer, 2007): 137-152. Reflects on the ambiguities of the novel’s ending, in which the blues band fails and the principal characters leave the reservation.Baxter, Andrea-Bess. “Review of Old Shirts and New Skins, First Indian on the Moon, and The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven.” Western American Literature 29, no. 3 (November, 1994): 277-280. A review of the three works with commentary on the appeals of Alexie’s writing and its strengths.Bellante, John, and Carl Bellante. “Sherman Alexie, Literary Rebel.” Bloomsbury Review 14 (May-June, 1994): 14-15, 26.Bogey, Dan. Review of The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven, by Sherman Alexie. Library Journal 118 (September 1, 1993). Admires Alexie’s narrative voice.Brill, Susan Berry. Contemporary American Indian Literatures and the Oral Tradition. Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 1999.Caldwell, E. K. Dreaming the Dawn: Conversations with Native Artists and Activists. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1999.Chen, Tina. “Toward an Ethics of Knowledge.” MELUS 30, no. 2 (Summer, 2005): 157-173. Discusses Alexie’s Indian Killer as well as Cynthia Ozick’s The Shawl (1989) and Julie Otsuka’s When the Emperor Was Divine (2002). Advises proceeding from an ethical understanding of racial and cultural differences when dealing with these novels.Christie, Stuart. “Renaissance Man: The Tribal ’Schizophrenic’ in Sherman Alexie’s Indian Killer.” American Indian Culture and Research Journal 25, no. 4 (2001): 1-19. Addresses Alexie’s treatment of Native American characters and how, in Anglo-European cultural contexts, tribal identity may lead to a pathological state for Native Americans.Fast, Robin Riley. The Heart as a Drum: Continuance and Resistance in American Indian Poetry. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2000.Fleck, Richard F., ed. Critical Perspectives of Native American Fiction. 2d ed. Pueblo, Colo.: Passeggiata Press, 1997. A work appropriate for the literary scholar.Grassian, Daniel. Understanding Sherman Alexie. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 2005. First book-length work offering commentary on Alexie’s poetry and fiction pays ample attention to reviews and other published discussions of his writings. Provides biographical details as well as analysis and interpretation of the fiction through Indian Killer.Hanson, Elizabeth I. Forever There: Race and Gender in Contemporary Native American Fiction. New York: P. Lang, 1989. A work appropriate for the literary scholar.Kilpatrick, Jacquelyn. Celluloid Indians: Native Americans and Film. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1999.Kincaid, James R. “Who Gets to Tell Their Stories?” The New York Times Book Review, May 3, 1992, 1, 24-29.Lincoln, Kenneth. Native American Renaissance. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1983. Gives a general social and literary overview of American Indian writers.Lincoln, Kenneth. Sing with the Heart of a Bear: Fusions of Native and American Poetry, 1890-1999. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2000.Low, Denise. The American Indian Quarterly 20, no. 1 (Winter, 1996): 123-125. In examining Alexie’s work through a postmodern lens, Low discusses his characters and rhetorical strategies in The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven and The Business of Fancydancing.Lundquist, Suzanne Evertsen. Native American Literatures: An Introduction. New York: Continuum, 2004. Section on Alexie (in the chapter titled “The Best and the Best Known”) includes summaries of important critiques of Reservation Blues and Indian Killer that question his representation of Native American cultural values and reservation life as well as issues of “hybridity” and “essentialism.”McFarland, Ron. “‘Another Kind of Violence’: Sherman Alexie’s Poems.” American Indian Quarterly 21, no. 2 (Spring, 1997): 251-264. Reviews various anthologies and types of Native American writing and writers with a focus on Sherman Alexie and his work.Niatum, Duane, ed. Harper’s Anthology of Twentieth-Century Native American Poetry. San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1988. Features thirty-six contributors and attempts to address what makes Native American poetry unique.Price, Reynolds. “One Indian Doesn’t Tell Another.” The New York Times Book Review, October 17, 1993, 15-16.SAIL: Studies in American Indian Literature 9, no. 4 (Winter, 1997). Special issue devoted to Alexie’s fiction includes an interview with Alexie as well as essays by such scholars as Karen Jorgensen (“White Shadows: The Use of Doppelgangers in Sherman Alexie’s Reservation Blues”), Janine Richardson (“Magic and Memory in Sherman Alexie’s Reservation Blues”), and P. Jane Hafen (“Rock and Roll, Redskins, and Blues in Sherman Alexie’s Work”).Schneider, Brian. Review of The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven, by Sherman Alexie. Review of Contemporary Fiction 13 (Fall, 1993). Praises Alexie’s passionate lyrical voice.Silko, Leslie Marmon. “Bingo Man–Reservation Blues by Sherman Alexie.” Nation 260, no. 23 (June 12, 1995): 856-860. A review by a celebrated Native American writer of Alexie’s short stories and poems with special focus on his first novel, Reservation Blues.Vickers, Scott B. Native American Identities: From Stereotype to Archetype in Art and Literature. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1998.Vizenor, Gerald, ed. Narrative Chance: Postmodern Discourse on Native American Indian Literatures. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1993. A specialized study that places the literature within an esoteric scholarly continuum.West, Dennis. “Sending Cinematic Smoke Signals: An Interview with Sherman Alexie.” CINEASTE 23, no. 4 (1998): 28-32. Discusses both the film Smoke Signals and short stories in The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven, followed by an in-depth interview with Alexie about his early influences and work.
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