War Dances

By Sherman Alexie

Grove Press | 2009 | 209 pp | $23.00

Reviewed by Sally Cobau

sherman alexie

When I was an artist-in-residence several years ago on the Rosebud Indian Reservation in South Dakota, I used Sherman Alexie in my high school classes. After one of the classes, a student asked if he could borrow The Toughest Indian in the World, the short story collection I had been using. Though I had censored my selections and was a little wary of him reading the “uncensored parts,” I handed it over. I don’t even know if he read the book, but somehow it gave me comfort imagining that book, with its funky orange cover, lying in the kid’s bedroom.

However, some of the other teachers and administrators were not so pleased that I had used the book. To them, Sherman Alexie’s stories were full of the clichéd “drunken Indians.”

“Why perpetuate stereotypes?” the teacher who taught the Crow language class asked me, his face twisted in displeasure. And what did I know? I answered weakly that I was only trying to give them stories that were true to their lives.

Maybe Alexie wouldn’t mock this little anecdote; after all, in his latest collection of short stories, War Dances one of the central themes is that of being able to examine something from multiple angles.

In the book, he quotes F. Scott Fitzgerald: “Intelligence is the ability to hold two opposing ideas at once…”

So through this collection, the main characters are trying to come to terms with oppositions: the vintage clothing entrepreneur who doesn’t desire his sexy wife anymore, though he feels he should; the grief stricken son who gently cares for his Dad in the hospital as his Dad is dying, although his father was an alcoholic who could crack his kids open with his brutal words; the son of a Republican Senator who feels threatened by his friend’s confession of being gay, yet who can’t stop loving his friend. Beauty and harshness rub against each other, causing an electrical, exciting friction.

In one story, when the mother creates a quilt made entirely from old blue jeans, the sister proclaims it a quilt made from “men’s asses.” Turn a few pages and Alexie describes the quilt as a “quilt made from God.” From men’s asses to God? In my mind, the quilt lies somewhere in between—in the flow of man, in the realm of Heaven.

Alexie pulls the rug out from the reader continuously in these stories, asking the reader to rework the story, along with the narrator. He uses clichéd language and sentiments purposefully in order to undercut or emphasize his points. In one instance, a father and son are described as sitting together in silence.

He writes, “We sat there in silence. A masculine silence, thick and strong. Oh, I’m full of shit. We were terrified and clueless.”

Again the truth seems to hover somewhere in between these statements. Can you be strong and terrified at the same time? Perhaps. War Dances stories concern themselves with story telling and the inability of language to be precise. It seems impossible for the narrators to describe the world in all its subtlety and wondrousness.

In “Breaking and Entering,” the narrator, a film editor, tries to describe the sound of a window breaking. “…I heard a window shatter in the basement. Is shatter too strong a verb? I heard a window break. But break seems too weak a verb.”

So what are these stories about? In most, people confront their biggest fears and learn to love those who have failed them. In some cases the men have failed themselves, as in the story of the writer turned crossword puzzle aficionado, who has writer’s block.

“The Ballad of Paul Nonetheless” was my favorite story. This character is terribly, terribly flawed. This “average Joe” seems pathetic as he chases after a woman in an airport and hits on her by quoting the Hall & Oates song, “Sara Smile.”

As I reader I was both drawn to and repelled by this guy. He worshipped this woman from afar—the shape of her rear and her good-looking red Puma sneakers (how he loved those sneakers!)—and accosted her with a primal urge. On the one hand, it was disturbing to see such a boorish fellow; on the other hand it was refreshing to see a story so intently focused on desire.

This entire collection is worthy of the description—bold, gutsy, and beautiful.

Sally Cobau is a writer and teacher living in Lincoln, Nebraska.

Return to home page