RESERVATION BLUES, Sherman Alexie, Atlantic Monthly Press, 841 Broadway,New York, NY 10003-4793, (800) 521-0178, (212) 614-7886 FAX.; 320 pp., $21.00 cloth. 0-87133-594-9
"Hello," the white men said. "We're Phil Sheridan and George Wright from Cavalry Records in New York City. We've come to talk to you about a recording contract."
Sherman Alexie's first novel opens on a note that's actually a chord: resonating with both humor and sadness. When resurrected blues guitarist Robert Johnson stumbles onto the Spokane Indian Reservation in eastern Washington, he tells Thomas-Builds-the-Fire he's been looking for (and dreaming about) a big woman who rides a horse, sings songs, can make his hands play the guitar again, and save him from "The Gentleman." The only person Thomas can think of is Big Mom, a mysterious and powerful woman who lives on the top of Wellpinit Mountain. Thomas gives Johnson a ride to the base of the mountain, lets him out, and watches him disappear up the mountain. It's then that he discovers that Johnson has left his guitar behind. Thomas picks it up and hits the strings, playing the first notes of the "Reservation Blues."
Those who have read Alexie's book of short stories, The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven (1993), will be familiar with Thomas, snubbed tribal storyteller, and his two friends, arrogant Victor Joseph and his backward sidekick Junior Polatkin. In his new novel, Alexie continues his story of the three, who find that possessing the guitar endows them with sudden talent, which they put to immediate use by forming an all-Indian rock and blues band (accompanied by Chess and Checkers, sisters from the Flathead Reservation who sing backup) named Coyote Springs. Without being accused of providing a synopsis instead of a review, I can say that most of the book relates the band's quest for gigs and a recording contract.
Along the way, Alexie reflects on the many contradictions of Indian life, many related in dreams or drunken reveries: commodity food and 7-11 stores; Catholicism, Christianity and ancient wisdom; the Indian Health Service (on the Spokane Reservation, they only give out dental floss and condoms), traditional medicine and Spokane Hospitals; mysticism and New-Age wannabes, in a brilliant blend of heartbreak and comedy. These incongruities, despite the occasional crossing over into caricature (especially unstable Michael White Hawk who spends his days marching around the bases of the local softball field), express a poetic candor and are interpreted with a fresh awareness that is far beyond Alexie's twenty-eight years. Grade: A-
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Also by Alexie: First Indian on the Moon (literary collection, 1993), The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven (short stories, 1993), Old Shirts and New Skins (poetry, 1993), The Business of Fancydancing (stories and poems, 1992) Reviewed by Steve Brock
This section is from the document '/Online Library Catalogs, Electronic Books and Reference Databases/Book Reviews from rec.arts.books.reviews/A/Alexie, Sherman/Reservation Blues (fiction, NA)'.
Several Indian Looks:
Spokane Tribe Lady Is Critical: A prolific writer, Sherman Alexie (Spokane/Coeur d'Alene) has become somewhat of an enigma on the literary scene in only a few years' time. Most reviewers - as far from the rural reservation setting as they come - have heaped praise and adulation upon Alexie's work as representing contemporary reservation life. This review, however, questions the assumption that just because someone is "Indian" that what they produce is automatically an accurate representation. It addresses specific problems with the construed, generic "Indian" qualities and attributes that are pervasively held about diverse tribal peoples. It attempts to discuss the elements of Alexie's latest work, Reservation Blues, that, in the spirit of an Indian Spike Lee, contribute to the portrait of an exaggerated version of reservation life.
The comparison to Spike Lee is a fair one given the noticeably script-like prose and the mixed messages generated by the whole. Lee too, by selecting and exposing little-known aspects of black culture, has been credited with having successfully interpreted black "life" to the rest of the world.
The literary landscape of Reservation Blues is cluttered with allusions to popular culture, most noticeanly to film, and in particular to the film Crossroads, based on the life of the legendary bluesman Robert Johnson (who, it is said, sold his soul to the devil in exchange for musical ability).
The introduction of elements for "affect" seems to be a literary strategy that is consistent throughout the novel. For instance, an historical event that affected the Spokane is introduced less for its significance and more for the convenient metaphor of the horses whose scream appears throughout as a refrain. The refrain, "the Indian horses scream" seems to take the place of a background musical score. There is no explanation given for the killing of the horses by the cavalry, but the horses are given more weight a little later as we become witness, close up, to the killing of a single colt.
The major paradigm of the novel relies on the association of the slaughtered horses to Indians as fallen victims of the bottle and a country that does not love us. The model is restructured only two paragraphs later, as the horses reincarnate as a multitude of famous musicians including Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix, and Marvin Gaye.
Perhaps more importantly, a number of aspects of Native cultures become prop-like. The small community of Wellpinit, Washington and its surroundings become intimate props, familar scenery that is vacant of any emotional investment. The greeting "ya-hey" that appears throughout is a contrived expression. One can only speculate that it is based upon the Dine greeting, ya tey (or, ya tah hay). There is a nameless character who has "cheekbones so big that he knocked people over . . ," a distinguishing feature that signals his Siouian descendance. He is referred to as "the-man-who-was-probably-Lakota," a Bible-thumping "crazy old Indian man" predicting the end of the world. While Sioux culture is disparaged in the personage of this character (who is never humanized because Alexie neglects to attribute to him a name), one of the characters appropriates the Siouan address "all my relations" in the sweatlodge (instead of the Northwest sweathouse) scene. Intermittently sprinkled like bait are sage-smudging, stickgame, sweetgrass enough to titillate the curiousity of non-Native readers, while simultaneously mishmashing Indian cultures to create a pan-Indian, non-specific representation of a community that is flawed because of its exaggerated "Indian" qualities.
Exaggeration seems to be the rule. Take, for instance, the appearance of commodity food every time the characters return to their HUD home, and the overuse of the Red English term "enit." Betty and Veronica, Beaver and Wally, the American Werewolf and Billy Jack, Janis Joplin and Jimi Hendrix, Marvin Gaye and Robert Johnson - along with the ingredients borrowed from many Native cultures - all contribute to the cut-and-paste of Reservation Blues. It is fiction that is a product of the techno-generation, clever at times, but not the serious literature it is cracked up to be.
Like a Spike Lee film, a number of Indian issues are given the floor, like Indian-white romantic alliances (Don't you know? Bucks prefer white tail."); relationships between Indian men and women (". . . only Indian women can take care of Indian men . . . Then they run off with white women." and " . . . as the screwed-up Indian men stagger through [Indian women's] lives, Indian men need only their teeth to get snagged."); New Age wannabes (" . . . most any white who joins up with Indians never wants to leave." and "Why do all these white people think they can be Indian all of a sudden?"); and on being Indian (". . . you ain't really Indian unless, at some point in your life, you didn't want to be Indian.") yet, none of the issues are invested with any serious discussion.
In the end, I am reminded of Spike Lee, the African-American filmmaker, who I want to cheer for being able to create movies about his culture in films that star African-American actors. What is missing, though, from both his films and from Alexie's Reservation Blues is a sense of responsibility to the cultures they are attempting to represent. Reservation Blues is a quick read, and entertaining - to a point. It is unfortunate that the representation of Indianness Alexie presents are dressed in America's favorite subjects when it comes to Indians: tragedy and despair. then again, it's quite possible that we're not supposed to think about it all that hard. Reviewed by: Gloria Bird, Spokane
Another Native Lady thinks Gloria is looking for propaganda, not art:
> contemporary reservation life. This review, however, questions the > assumption that just because someone is "Indian" that what they produce is > automatically an accurate representation.
I question whether Sherman has ever stated this was meant to be an "accurate representation". This was a work of fiction, for cryin out loud! I know Ms. Bird is most likely concerned with non-Natives who will assume Alexie is offering an accurate representation of life for all Natives everywhere, but I do not think expecting every Native writer to write with an imposed agenda of teaching the non-Natives is the answer. People who care or are "responsible" will learn, others will hold biases no matter what they are shown contrary.
> > The comparison to Spike Lee is a fair one given the noticeably script-like > prose and the mixed messages generated by the whole. Lee too, by selecting > and exposing little-known aspects of black culture, has been credited with > having successfully interpreted black "life" to the rest of the world. > > The literary landscape of Reservation Blues is cluttered with allusions to > popular culture, most noticeanly to film,
This concerns me. I personally very much like writers who can pull this off well: pull in different mediums, be informed by the medium as well as the content. It reflects a distinctly contemporary cultural quality that people do experience. Including Indians. I know I shouldn't probly mention Kathy Acker, but oh well. Cut-up is a method that is being viably discussed academically. It comes from the film concept of montage. So, anyhow Alexie isn't the only person to be informed from other mediums and have it inform the work.
> The introduction of elements for "affect" seems to be a literary strategy > that is consistent throughout the novel. For instance, an historical event > that affected the Spokane is introduced less for its significance and more > for the convenient metaphor of the horses whose scream appears throughout > as a refrain. The refrain, "the Indian horses scream" seems to take the > place of a background musical score. There is no explanation given for the > killing of the horses by the cavalry, but the horses are given more weight > a little later as we become witness, close up, to the killing of a single > colt.
I am unclear of why it is not a good thing for Ms.Bird that Alexie utilizes "affect". As the term signifies, it is a subjective rendering. This is the impact this event had on this character, this is what it meant for him.
> Siouan > address "all my relations" in the sweatlodge (instead of the Northwest > sweathouse) scene. Intermittently sprinkled like bait are sage-smudging, > stickgame, sweetgrass enough to titillate the curiousity of non-Native > readers, while simultaneously mishmashing Indian cultures to create a > pan-Indian, non-specific representation of a community that is flawed > because of its exaggerated "Indian" qualities.
I do not know what the Spokane reservations are like, but I do know that it is pretty mismashed here in Seattle. With Indians going to BoneGame one weekend and a sweat the next and a Give Away the next. This is only our community though and I know there are some Indians who are highly critical of "urban Indyins". But what can ya do when there are so many different tribal influences and no predominant mono-culture?
> Exaggeration seems to be the rule. Take, for instance, the appearance of > commodity food every time the characters return to their HUD home, and the > overuse of the Red English term "enit." Betty and Veronica, Beaver and > Wally, the American Werewolf and Billy Jack, Janis Joplin and Jimi > Hendrix, Marvin Gaye and Robert Johnson - along with the ingredients > borrowed from many Native cultures - all contribute to the cut-and-paste > of Reservation Blues. It is fiction that is a product of the > techno-generation, clever at times, but not the serious literature it is > cracked up to be.
Yes. She does get it, here. But fails to apply it. Yes there is exaggeration. I think Alexie's use of irony is what she just fails to appreciate.
> none of the issues are invested with any serious discussion.
I believe one of Alexie's agendas is to get Indians to lighten up and to get non-Indians to realize we're not that different. Serious discussion is not the point and I wonder why Bird expects that all "ethnic" artists must deal with their own cultures in only that manner. Alexie's perspective in this work is only one perspective among many. I hate to say it but I is hard me not to wonder what Bird's agenda is. I have seen Alexie give one of his reading/performances to a whole roomful of a hundred Indians and they laugh. They laugh because it is true. Even though they know it's exagerration. It's like letting the world in on a private joke. On the way home from one of these readings a few of us were going on about Sherman's delivery and one big kid was saying it was true! He loved fried baloney, except he would always cut the edge so wouldn't pop up in the middle like Sherman was joking about. We all kidded him for admitting such a thing, but he was self satified because Sherman had made it o.k. but funny too.
> In the end, I am reminded of Spike Lee, the African-American filmmaker, > who I want to cheer for being able to create movies about his culture in > films that star African-American actors. What is missing, though, from > both his films and from Alexie's Reservation Blues is a sense of > responsibility to the cultures they are attempting to represent. > Reservation Blues is a quick read, and entertaining - to a point. > It is unfortunate that the representation of Indianness Alexie presents > are dressed in America's favorite subjects when it comes to Indians: > tragedy and despair. then again, it's quite possible that we're not > supposed to think about it all that hard.
Maybe Sherman isn't committed to enobling Indians through serious responsible representations that take the non-Natives reaction into account first, but maybe his responsibility lies in helping a big gangly Indian kid to not feel like such an oddity and to make laughter and poetry while he's at it. Despite Ms.Bird's assertion that "techno" informed writings are not "real literature", well I know the old schoolers said that about W.C.Williams, Allen Ginsberg, etc...... With Bird's assertions that Alexie is exposing "little known aspects" of Indian cultures unresponsibly and her comparing him to Spike Lee and his "interpreting" I can't help but wonder just what is it she is getting at? Does she think he's prostituting Indian culture?
PS: This wasn't meant to meant to be a critique to Bird's critique. Many of the issues she raises are not literary criticism per se, but reactions, so I felt free to respond in kind. Reviewed by Pauline Bird, Seattle
An Indun Man Weighs in, Innit?
I make no apologies for the sacrilige I am about to commit. Not that I really believe that Sherman Alexie is a deity or anything, but on the other hand, anything is possible. I would never dream of critiquing a sweat or any kind of a ceremony, but since a review is the only way I have been taught to discuss a novel, I will attempt to review RESERVATION BLUES herewith. I entered the novel with expectations. Just after THE BUSINESS OF FANCYDANCING came out, one of the counselors at UAA sought me out to lend me the collection of poem-stories. I will be forever grateful. I used one of the poems, I don't recall the name but it concerned itself with Polaroid snapshots at a pow-wow, as an audition piece. (I was called back, but had other commitments.) I have continued to quietly worhsip those words I found on paper that spoke of my life. It wasn't so much that the words actually tell the story, but it is the way the words work and play with each other to create entire villages in my brain. I remain utterly amazed that the joy and pain of a lifetime can be compressed into English words on paper. All that taken into consideration..........
I was at first struck with the contrast between what I had expected and what I got. Simple verbs and nouns placed together to create a narrative. I had wanted each word to grab me and to pull me onto the page. I remained detached. What I noticed were "novel" tricks, or at least tricks of the canon. Is mocking the canon the same as firing it? Opening the story with a stranger, a black stranger at that, and ending with that fellow becoming a part of the place of the story as we leave it makes it circular, but a little too pat. Is our acceptance of others really our downfall? Or will it turn out to be something better, tune it next time.... Re: page 10, does the omission of Eric Clapton's name mean that story has yet to be told?
The continuing saga of the screaming horses, it does not end. Sequel? (You can tell these folks live in the NW because they pronounce the affirmation query as enit while we in the midwest tend to lower the first syllable to ainit which is a shortened form of o ainit? which is still asked by some aunties and grandmothers.)
[PG interruption: innit! innit! innit!]
Big Mom is our deux ex machina. She's at home anywhere and at any time. She is more "real" than other characters even though her background is unclear yet not unexpected. Betty and Veronica reminded me of the kind of writing Pope did. He did what he was writing about. B and V are the complete antithesis of Ind'in girls, gameplaying Chess and Checkers. B and V don't even get involved enough to play a game. They are painted so unreal that even the name of their bookstore is a ghostly reference. The fact that they get the one recording contract that the situation afforded was just too pat for me, too patterned. They are the cartoon characters that flit here and there and end up with the prize without any effort whatsoever. We readers hate them, but we hate only a caricature of a character. A prejudice of a sterotype?
These Spokane Indians do not feel at home on this reservation. It was not an "accident" nor was it particularly fortunate that the tribe was placed on that parcel of land. The inhabitants lived not in their homes, but in HUD houses. There's a big difference. We are never allowed to forget the fact that nowhere is home.
The lead singer reference reminds me of how treaties were made. The one person who the tribe could afford to be without for an extended period went off and made contracts witht he US government. From then on, the government dealt with that person whether or not he had any authority. It still happens. When's the last time your elected leader contacted you as to how you wished things to be?
The story of Father Arnold's calling at the McDonald's cracked me up. Didn't that same story surface a few years ago in a National Enquirer about a television evangelist? Just an ordinary good looking man who subtly, yet masterfully, left a a swath of destruction in his wake. Another stereotype set to type. (pun intended but not achieved)
Now when this name Coyote Springs forth, I was pulled from the story to an editor's conference. Some aspect as written is unacceptable, so is deleted. The Trickster then springs up. Too often I was reminded that an editor exists.
Page 37 - how deep is that chasm between our leaders and ourselves? I was a bit let down that the background stories were not presented as artfully as the characters. I really don't like to be told a summary of what happened; I want to happen with it.
Now, the dream stuff. What was that about? These folks had bad dreams, good dreams, etc. What am I missing? Why include their dreams? Is nothing left for these folks to call their own?
Time's up for me. More later. Gotta go make salsa. I lied, one more thing: The list of questions near the end, page 305, looked too much like an old comic book and sounded too much like the end of the first half of a Batman segment. It felt as though someone was getting spanked, was it me? All through the book, I could see this story enacted on a live stage. 'Course I'd like to play Victor (Victoria) and defieantly spew forth pent up anger all over the place. I left off due to time, but there's much more to look at. Responses? Reviewed by
Alex Heard Sherman Give a Talk -- A Whole Nother Book (innit?)
Back to my e-desk these past few days and sorting through tons of interesting thoughts and ideas that have collected there. Forgive me for not remembering who said what, but because of the messages about the oral tradition-note taking-teaching approaches and about Sherman Alexie's _Reservation Blues_ , I'd like to relate something.
I went to hear Sherman Alexie read last June here in Ann Arbor, Michigan. I hadn't read _Reservation Blues_ yet, but I thought it would be interesting to wait until I'd heard his reading first, and then begin the novel. I'd already read _Lone Ranger and Tonto_ and I thought that was pretty good. I'd heard a lot about him and about his new novel--some good, really good, and some pretty disparaging. Anyway I felt ready for something good, something bad, maybe something unexpected, I didn't know. But I went prepared to listen very carefully.
He didn't read. He spoke. He told us the story. It lasted about 1/2 hr., maybe 3/4, who knows with time? I don't know if I laughed and got sad in the right places or the wrong places, but I know I laughed a lot and felt sad a lot. He's really a gifted storyteller.
Later, I went home and opened the book and began reading and discovered that the story he told us was not the same as the one in print. Beginning on the first page there were minor changes (words and phrases here and there added or deleted), but the changes became much more comprehensive as the pages went by until I realized that there were whole scenes that I had heard that were not in the book. That evening I could have fairly precisely reproduced the gift of the story that he gave us and also indicated exactly how it differed from the print version.
I guess what I'm trying to say is that my experience has certainly made
me think for the last couple of months about my teaching and the oral
tradition and how to incorporate what I learned. And about _Reservation
Blues_. I think about it through the way I first heard it, and I've found
that this is a book that should be read aloud, it's meant to be heard I
think. There *is* a rushed feeling about it, as if there were a tight
publisher's deadline to be met, and a young feeling, too, I agree. As to
how good it is or isn't, it's worth your reading it to see for yourself.
But if you have the opportunity to hear him, go.Thanks for listening.Alix Casteel
Native American BOOKS, text and graphics copyright Paula Giese, 1996
Last Updated: Tuesday, March 19, 1996 - 2:37:50 AM