No one tells the truth like Sherman Alexie.
If candor is Alexie’s superpower, accuracy might be his nemesis. In his latest book, “You Don’t Have to Say You Love Me,” a memoir inspired by the 2015 death of his mother, Lillian, Alexie credits himself with an excellent memory while acknowledging that he’s vulnerable to the accusation that he creates his own “highly flawed version of the truth.”
Alexie fans will understand that an unreliable memoirist can also have a great memory; those characteristics are not necessarily in conflict. Alexie admits that he might be an unreliable narrator as far as specific facts are concerned, but he does his best to present his mother fully — the good, the bad and the ugly.
In “You Don’t Have to Say You Love Me” Alexie asks and answers a compelling question — “how does one deliver an honest eulogy?” Because the subject is his mother, and because Lillian Alexie was complex and tormented, Sherman Alexie approaches his task piece by piece in 142 expertly named chapters. Some are poems, others are prose, a few are both, and some blur the lines between poetry and prose.
Alexie’s poems dazzle with narrative clarity and tend away from abstraction or lyricism. He favors ideas over sounds and moments over images, but barely. His fondness for straightforward language almost conceals his devotion to formality. He gravitates toward stanza consistency and favors the sonic virtues of rhyme and assonance. Chapter 52, “The Quilting,” is spectacular. In 51 haiku stanzas, Alexie describes his mother’s love for her family through her passion and her profession — quilting. “My mother made quilts./She would sew instead of sleep/And weep at sunrise.”
In addition to more than a few outstanding poems, several prose chapters show Alexie at his best. The Grand Coulee Dam section (Chapters 42 through 49) stands out, as does Chapter 72, titled “Chronology,” which describes with tremendous skill and care a particularly difficult moment in his mother’s life.
Throughout, Alexie is courageous and unflinching, delivering a worthy and honest eulogy by showing us his mother and himself in full, everything spectacular and everything scarred. As usual, he is brilliant, vulnerable, wry, polished and grateful, but also sometimes vindictive, petty, crass and obsessive.
In other words, the author is complex and tormented, just like his subject. To his credit, Alexie targets himself with the same unsparing gaze he uses to examine his mother. His brand of candor requires superhuman strength.
The highs in “You Don’t Have to Say You Love Me” are magnificent and many, the lows are confounding but few. Every single stitch isn’t perfect, but you won’t believe how this quilt makes you feel.
Michael Kleber-Diggs is a poet and essayist in St. Paul.
You Don't Have to Say You Love Me
By: Sherman Alexie.
Publisher: Little, Brown, 457 pages, $28.