Sherman Alexie's latest collection is sweet, salty, and full of heart.
Leave it to Sherman Alexie to title his collection of new and selected short stories "Blasphemy," to jerk the reader's chain right off, then surprise us with the sweetness of his emotions, the salty sacredness of his tales. We have come to count on Alexie to blaspheme anything publicly revered, but in his stories his heart is wide open to love and death, fathers and sons, grief and loss and the multiple dilemmas of marriage and race and waking up pathetically human. So his stories speed along, most first-person narration, a voice so captivating you don't want him (or her) to stop.
Many of these stories were published in earlier volumes, and I read them again here with the same pleasure and delight of discovery as the first time, the combination of laugh-out-loud and heartbreak Alexie manages to pack into 10 or 20 pages. Some of the new ultra-short stories, three or four pages, are less successful, with not quite enough room for the magic. But "Gentrification" packs plenty of punch in only six pages. Sometimes he can capture a story in a sentence. "Our open marriage was only slightly ajar." "Though I'd dance with any man in a crowd, I prefer to grieve alone."
"Scenes From a Life" opens with a funny, confident, promiscuous woman, three husbands behind her, and suddenly we find the source and it is not funny, a child given up for adoption 30 years ago whom she still seeks in every dark and beautiful face around her. "Salt," the story of an apprentice obituary writer, twists the job of telling death's story into an impossibly funny/sad knot of youth vs. senility. "The Search Engine" is the best story you ever will read about a poet's agony and despair. And "Basic Training," a new story about fun Donkey Basketball, you cannot read without drowning in tears.
The long-married will recognize themselves in the marvelous "Do You Know Where I Am?" harboring three tough questions, two lies and the mysterious love at its center. Sometimes laughter is the subject of a story, but in this case it's the solution to an unsolvable problem. "Assimilation" describes another long marriage surprising itself.
Then there is race. Alexie, a Spokane who grew up on the reservation near Tacoma and made it big as a writer in mostly white Seattle, knows all the toxic products of race and tribalism. Few write more inventively about this "Frankenstein monster that has grown beyond our control."
In the story "Search Engine," the character Corliss says, "She never met one human being more interesting to her than a good book." If that book is by Sherman Alexie, that sentiment could be true for the rest of us, too.
James P. Lenfestey is a poet and writer in Minneapolis.