Blasphemy: New And Selected Stories by Sherman Alexie
Sherman Alexie is something of a big deal in American fiction. He’s published 20 books, directed films, and in 2010 he won the PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction. Blasphemy is a big collection of his stories, both new and old, and, at 450 pages, it might be almost too big.
Alexie grew up on the Spokane Indian Reservation and most of his stories take place in the listless urban zones just nearby. It’s a landscape of highways and 7-Elevens and gas stations and hospitals and prisons.
But Alexie is a funny writer and the social anxieties he contemplates – various types of racism and displacement, and the ordinary moments of sadness or cruelty – are always clothed in his comforting, somewhat relentless humour. Alexie’s narrators are the sorts of people who tell jokes to badly disguise their own feelings. As in life, it’s an endearing and occasionally annoying habit.
Alexie’s meandering, anecdotal narratives are often punctuated as well by moments of horrendous, matter-of-fact violence. ‘I tell her I manslaughtered my father,’ one character remarks. ‘That I punched him to death because he punched me for years.’ ‘Good for you,’ the Mayor replies. There’s a political function to this deadpan humour. It’s matter-of-fact because it’s nothing new, because it’s been going on for centuries now, because violence and poverty and disadvantage are old friends and if you’re shocked it’s because you’ve been living in the wrong – which is to say, the right – suburbs.
Nevertheless, there is, occasionally, a cartoon effect to this type of approach, which undermines the real horror. These are compulsively readable stories, and the best among them tackle big questions with a lightness of touch that seems effortless. But there is also a distinctive tonal similarity to them and after a while I began to want something that maybe wasn’t quite so readable.