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:

"I measured/ the size of your head every day./ It grew an inch in one week,/ but the doctors said no,/ it was a mother's imagination/ growing. I had nightmares/ you were pressed against walls/ of our house, breaking through,/ that it would never stop."

Now, with the San Francisco-based Hydrocephalus Association, Alexie is narrating and producing a documentary, tentatively titled "Learning to Drown," to raise awareness about the condition (1 million people have it in the United States alone). The film is to be released next June.

He's a tremendous source of inspiration, said Dory Kranz, the association's executive director. "One thing we hope to accomplish is to open people's hearts and minds to this condition, to bring awareness and light to it in a humorous but heart-wrenching way. I think that's Sherman's true gift."

Tribalism revisited

With a documentary in the works and back-to-back book tours, Alexie is having an especially busy run.

"Absolutely True Diary" comes right on the heels of "Flight" (Black Cat/Grove), a novel for adults whose narrator is an abandoned, biracial teen (his Irish mother dies of cancer; his Indian dad disappeared when he was born). "Call me Zits," he says in the book's Melvillian opening line. Zits, who suffers from a lethal combination of rage, shame and loneliness, is lured into a plot to shoot people at random in a bank lobby. Instead, he's time-whisked into the bodies and minds of people who make up his history and the history of humankind -- an FBI agent at Pine Ridge, an Indian boy at Wounded Knee, a pilot betrayed by the terrorist whom he befriended and taught to fly.

Expanded notions of tribalism, sympathetic biracial characters and empathic excursions into the minds of both victims and victimizers? Is this the same Sherman Alexie who wrote "Indian Killer" (1996), a novel that simmers with race-based rage?

The terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, "changed me tremendously," Alexie said. "I saw the end game of tribalism -- it ends up with people flying planes into buildings. I've worked hard since then to shed the negative parts of tribal thinking, which almost always involve some sort of fear," the starting point for violence, he said. "'Indian Killer' is very much a tribal and fundamentalist book. I've really disowned it."

Suicide, alcoholism and poverty still make their appearances in these recent works, themes that in the past have brought accusations of "reinforcing negative stereotypes."

Said Heid Erdrich of Minneapolis, a member of the Turtle Mountain Band of Ojibwe and a longtime teacher of Alexie's works: "It's a bind that any emerging literature is going to be in until people gain a broader understanding that we're just humans -- and can be as ugly as the characters in a William Kennedy novel or as bent toward redemption as the characters in a Flannery O'Connor novel."

Jim Lenfestey of Minneapolis, who also has taught Alexie's work, said Alexie has matured and mellowed, but hasn't lost his edge.

"He'll still swing crisply at all around him who presume, but he swings from a different center of gravity now," Lenfestey said. "That center of gravity is more Sherman Alexie as father, citizen of the world and prosperous man, but still against all forms of idiocy, none excepted."

Some of his current targets include white liberals who won't "own their privilege" or "use their power," blond guys with dreadlocks, people who have bumper stickers advocating gun control and ones that say "Free Leonard Peltier," parents who try to control their children's destinies and people who try to prove themselves with their paychecks.

What hasn't changed, Lenfestey said, is Alexie's famously combative and "riotously mocking" sense of humor. "He has the comic timing of a David Letterman with the political content of a Jon Stewart. He leaves you on the floor." Lenfestey recalled, for example, Alexie's opening remark to a recent poetry festival with an environmental theme. One of only a few Indians at the event, Alexie "held his arms 3 feet wide and said, 'This is my carbon footprint!' "

Sarah T. Williams is the Star Tribune Books editor.



Sarah T. Williams • swilliams@startribune.com