Man of many tribes

  • Article by: SARAH T. WILLIAMS , Star Tribune
  • Updated: March 23, 2011 - 4:04 PM

Two back-to-back works of fiction reveal a Sherman Alexie mellowed and tempered by fatherhood, memories of his own childhood and the events of Sept. 11, 2001.

Sherman Alexie

Author Sherman Alexie for The Star Tribune

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A polite person would say that Sherman Alexie was born with "water on the brain" or, more correctly, with hydrocephalus.

Alexie prefers to liken his infant noggin to "a giant French fry." There was "too much grease inside my skull," he writes in "The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian" (Little, Brown), "and it got all thick and muddy and disgusting, and it only mucked up the works."

In his first work of fiction for young adults, the Seattle poet, novelist, humorist, screenwriter and master of the short story has created an endearing teen protagonist in his own likeness and placed him in the here and now: Arnold (Junior) Spirit, 14, is a poor kid on the Spokane Indian Reservation in Wellpinit, Wash. How poor? A bucket of Kentucky Fried Chicken is a godsend, not a guilty pleasure, and a trip to the vet for his sick dog (and best friend), Oscar, is out of the question.

Because of the hydrocephalus, Junior suffers frequent seizures and fevers, has extra teeth, a stutter, a lisp and lopsided vision corrected with government-issued black plastic glasses that make him look like "an Indian grandpa." All of this, of course, incites the Darwinian brutality of his peers, who beat him and berate him with taunts of "hydro head" and "retard." He also has loving, if flawed, parents.

This much is true about Alexie's own life. And so, too, is the life-altering decision Junior ultimately makes to go to school in nearby Reardan, where he will be "the only Indian except for the mascot."

An 'epic' decision

Like the character he created, Alexie dreamed of a better life. His decision at age 14 to attend school off the reservation "was huge ... epic," he said during a recent interview at his writer's studio in the Central District of Seattle. "It was only 22 miles, geographically. But I might as well have been Lewis and Clark for the journey it took."

He was departing a "monoculture," he said, "where everybody in the sixth grade was related, including the teacher," and heading into "an anti-Indian town" with a school full of academic and athletic overachievers.

Looking back, Alexie, now 40 and the father of two boys, marvels that his parents -- mom, a quiltmaker, and dad, "a randomly employed, blue-collar alcoholic" -- gave their permission. "When I worked up the courage and approached them, they never even blinked. They just said OK. And it didn't occur to me until years later how amazing that was, because in a sense, I did betray the tribe. I really did. I left it. But I also left my family."

Just as Alexie did, Junior dons the "white man's uniform" and, pitted against his former classmates, takes his licks on the basketball court. The tension makes for some page-turning and bruising replays.

And, just as Alexie has done, Junior eventually learns to widen his embrace of the world and all the tribes in it: "I realized that, sure, I was a Spokane Indian," Junior writes in his diary. "I belonged to that tribe. But I also belonged to the tribe of ... basketball players ... bookworms ... small-town kids ... poverty ... boys who really missed their best friends ..."

'Learning to Drown'

One of Alexie's tribes is the tribe of people with hydrocephalus -- a condition in which cerebrospinal fluid accumulates in the brain, causing pressure and a range of symptoms from headaches to severe cognitive impairment.

When he was born, Alexie's parents were told that he needed immediate surgery to relieve the pressure, that he might not survive, and that if he did, he most likely would be profoundly mentally impaired. A priest was called and last rites administered.

He obviously defied all expectations, although the condition had a dramatic impact on his early years. There were many trips to the hospital and many years of physical therapy and early childhood education at Sacred Heart Hospital in Spokane and the University of Washington and Children's Hospitals in Seattle. Ironically, Alexie said, all the attention turned him into a "weird, academic, bookish" kid and gave him a glimpse of life beyond the reservation.

He does not have a shunt, a device that requires multiple brain surgeries. So he counts his blessings.

"I'm a highly successful hydro," he said, with his trademark big laugh and 200-watt smile.

"Absolutely True Diary" is Alexie's first extended work to deal with hydrocephalus, though he poignantly captured a mother's unrelieved anxiety in "Learning to Drown," a poem published in 1993:

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  • TALKING VOLUMES

    SHERMAN ALEXIE

    Event: MPR's Kerri Miller

    interviews Alexie, 7 p.m. Sept. 26, Fitzgerald Theater, 10 E. Exchange St., St. Paul. $15; $12 for members of Talking Volumes, the Loft or MPR. 651-290-1221.

    Talking Volumes: The regional book club is a partnership of the Star Tribune, Minnesota Public

    Radio and Loft Literary Center.

    Coming up are Ann Patchett (Oct. 16) and Walter Mosley (Nov. 15).

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Sherman Alexie