Monday, October 22, 2012

Sherman Alexie, Indian Killer

WTF German edition cover
In my one-sentence reviews of each story from Michael Chabon's McSweeney's Mammoth Treasure of Thrilling Tales, I thought I made an elegant, understated notation regarding Sherman Alexie's story "Ghost Dance": viz, "let me use capitals, so there's no mistake about what I mean -- HOLY SHIT, WORTH THE PRICE OF ADMISSION ALL ON ITS BLOODY, ANTI-COLONIALIST, ZOMBIE-LOVING OWN."

So yeah, I'm kind of a fan: loved Toughest Indian in the World, too.

Sherman Alexie has a knack for moving along the action in his fiction: Indian Killer is fast, and you meet a lot of characters in a small space. Published in 1996, it's basically a murder mystery with depth, genre fiction that proves the ridiculousness of using the term "genre fiction" as a putdown. Characters keep getting excluded, and whether or not they deserve shunning, it's painful every time, even when you find yourself pushed to laugh. It's funny, Indian Killer, which might be a surprise if you started the book hearing only about the violence, the urban poverty, and the intensely colonialist oppression that shapes the lives of Alexie's Indian characters. All that stuff's there, but ....

An example. Aaron Rogers is a young man involved in the random, extreme beating of Indians in downtown Seattle, and at one point he gets some advice from his father -- Buck Rogers. (You may have heard the name before.) He's not the smartest guy, but actually Buck's advice to his angry, racist son is sound: in answer to Aaron's complaint about things changing for the worse, and blaming Indians for it, Buck replies only, "Son, things have never been like you think they used to be" (p.387).


Or Marie Polatkin, a Spokane Indian, when she's interviewed by an unidentified police officer about the killings happening in Seattle that everyone thinks are by an Indian:
Marie: "if some Indian is killing white guys, then it's a credit to us that it took over five hundred years for it to happen. And there's more."Officer: "Yes?"Marie: "Indians are dancing now, and I don't think they're going to stop." (p.418)
Awesome French edition cover
I don't know enough about the Spokane context to say how things have gone since 1996, whether Indians are indeed dancing now, but it's clear that tribal communities in the US have made some significant advances over the last 15 years. Canadian First Nations have made some headway as well, building on (for example) the hard-earned success from the 1997 Delgamuukw decision and the still resonating complexities that flow from the 1990 conflict at Oka. At today's protest in Victoria, too, against the proposed Enbridge pipeline, First Nations held pride of place -- they were given it, they took it, everyone accepted that it was simply theirs. We're still decolonizing, and there's a hell of a lot of work to do, but at least there's some effort being made.

But, um ... I seem rather to have strayed from the point I was going to make, but these things happen. Takeaway: Indian Killer is a fantastic read, seriously fast and engaging, but also thoughtful and helpfully provocative. Definitely recommended, and very highly!

(In closing, I thought you might be surprised to learn that the internet houses some odd people, like this reviewer: "as I have with his other books, I counted the number of direct racial references in 40 randomly selected pages. The number of references was as high as 30 on a single page, and the average worked out to 8.2." Apparently these are "racially essentialist identifiers"; it's not clear why one might care.)

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