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America at the Crossroads : Life on the Spokane Reservation : RESERVATION BLUES, By Sherman Alexie (Atlantic Monthly Press: $21; 306 pp.)

June 18, 1995|Verlyn Klinkenborg | Verlyn Klinkenborg, a writing teacher at Harvard, is working on "Becoming a Hand," a book about being a Wyoming horse trainer

The Spokane Native American reservation, as the novelist Sherman Alexie imagines it, surrounds Wellpinit Mountain in eastern Washington. "Pine trees blanketed the mountain and the rest of the reservation. The town of Wellpinit sat in a little clearing below the mountain. Cougars strolled through the middle of town; a bear once staggered out of hibernation too early, climbed onto the roof of the Catholic Church, and fell back asleep." The Spokane reservation--"Population: Variable"--is almost empty of people but full of their forgetting, a place where life is ordered by "rules of conduct that aren't collected into any book and have been forgotten by most of the tribe," but the dietary staples are beer, commodity cheese, commodity applesauce and commodity peanut butter.

Big Mom, a legendary source of wisdom and the best fry bread cook on the reservation, lives at the top of Wellpinit Mountain. One day, a black man appears on her doorstep. He is Robert Johnson, the great blues guitarist, who wrote a famous song about going to the crossroads. That song provides one of the epigraphs to Sherman Alexie's wonderful new novel, "Reservation Blues." But "Reservation Blues" is not Big Mom's story, nor is it Robert Johnson's. It's the story that results when Johnson gives his magic guitar--a guitar that talks and plays itself and finds its way home when lost--to a young Spokane Native American named Thomas Builds-the-Fire. Thomas is the reservation storyteller, a teller of tales that hang "in your hair or clothes like smoke." Thomas also writes songs, plays bass and sings. With his friends--Victor Joseph, who inherits Johnson's guitar; Junior Polatkin, the drummer, and Chess and Checkers Warm Water, two women from the Flathead reservation in Montana--Thomas assembles a rock-and-roll band called Coyote Springs. Coyote Springs comes to life, it practices, it plays, it acquires a reputation and it collapses under the weight of its own hopes. So much for the plot.

"Reservation Blues" is an extension, a fulfillment really, of Alexie's remarkable 1993 short-story collection called "The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven." In both books, the setting is the Spokane Reservation and the main characters are Thomas, Victor and Junior, though the boys in the short stories have grown into their 30s in the novel. The prevailing tone in these two books is one of excoriating humor, and they are written with a hard-luck wit that is somehow darker than the mute appeal of pure tragedy and at the same time more forgiving. Alexie writes fictions of consciousness, not event. Their subject is, nakedly, ethnically, what it means to be Native American. As you read "Reservation Blues," you can feel Alexie's purposely divided attention, his alertness to a divided audience, Native American and Anglo. He is willing to risk didacticism whenever he stops to explain the particulars of the Spokane and, more broadly, the Native American experience to his readers. But Alexie never sounds didactic. His timing is too good for that. "Reservation Blues" never misses a beat, never sounds a false note.

In the most obvious narrative sense, Thomas Build- the-Fire occupies the heart of the novel. "With his long, black hair pulled into braids, he looked like an old-time salmon fisherman: short, muscular legs for the low center of gravity, long torso and arms for leverage to throw the spear." Thomas is the novel's conscience, and it is Thomas's puzzlement, his quizzical outlook on the world, that the reader comes to understand best. But the central character in "Reservation Blues" is really the reservation itself, the crossroads of which Robert Johnson sings. It is both a land of exile and an occupied territory, a place where the Spokane Native Americans--who, like all Native Americans, have lost control of the symbols that represent them--are constantly negotiating their identity in the face of white America, trying to decide how Native American is it whenever a question of value arises. Before he dropped out of college, for instance, "Junior had learned from Freud and Jung that dreams decided everything. He figured that Freud and Jung must have been reservation Indians because dreams decided everything for Indians, too."

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