Name a literary convention and Sherman Alexie has probably already flouted it, and conventional thinking, too, particularly any whiff of political correctness. But here's the rub, as demonstrated in Alexie's latest tour de force story collection, "War Dances": The clever poems he inserts between the stories are mostly rhymed, the form often wonderfully ... conventional. And his famous full-frontal assaults on stereotypes now sometimes circle back, knowingly, to stereotypes. Just like Alexie to unconventionally play with convention.
The title story, "War Dances," first published in the New Yorker, encapsulates Alexie's technique. It includes seemingly random vignettes, a delightful literary echo of Kafka's "Metamorphosis," a detailed medical discussion of hydrocephalus (of which Alexie is a survivor) and adult hearing loss (fictional?), an interview with a World War II vet about the death of the protagonist's grandfather, a lovely sonnet later hilariously and pointedly deconstructed, all ending on Alexie's persistent theme of the disappointment between fathers and sons.
In "A Senator's Son," a usually honorable son participates in a drunken gay bashing while his upright father is preparing for a run for U.S. Senate. What is the right thing for both of them to do, given that telling the truth will certainly crush the campaign? Alexie's answers are, as usual, surprising.
"Fearful Symmetry," one of the longer stories, rages like a wildfire leaping over random ridges. Sherman's alter ego, Sherwin Polatkin, quickly journeys from the fiery furnace of Hollywood screenwriting success to the ashes of crossword puzzle contestant. In Alexie's world, there is always a fire, always poet William Blake's mysterious "Tyger" waiting to pounce, always a glimmer of redemption in the ashes. Fearful symmetry indeed.
"Ballad of Paul Nonetheless" is the story of a man who cannot tell the truth, or find it, who ends up pathetically singing Marvin Gaye's "What's Going On?" into the self-created maelstrom around him.
"What's Going On?" could also be the theme song for "War Dances," and yet we care about these bewildered characters desperately seeking guidance on what to do right now, because, in most respects, their lives are our lives. Caught in quite ordinary wars, they dance to Gaye's throbbing question just as readers will to Alexie's characteristically funny dialogue and snappy stories.
On a final note, don't miss "Face" (159 pages, $18), Alexie's newest poetry collection from Hanging Loose Press, the small Brooklyn publisher that accepted his first poetry manuscript in 1991 and to which he remains unfashionably loyal. There is no poet like him -- the same dynamic storytelling as his prose, the same brilliantly inventive forms, his poems laced with prose and even footnotes. It's as good as "War Dances."
James P. Lenfestey is a Minneapolis poet and a former editorial writer for the Star Tribune.