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A satisfying serving of everyday magic, on wry

Ten Little Indians, Sherman Alexie, Grove Press: 244 pp., $24

June 15, 2003|Michael Harris | Michael Harris is a regular contributor to Book Review.

It's becoming clearer now that "Indian Killer" was an anomaly in Sherman Alexie's career. In that novel, he expressed Native American rage in a raw, direct form. Abandoning much of the humor of his earlier works, such as "The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven" and "Reservation Blues," he envisioned a Seattle of literary poseurs, shock-talk radio and vigilante injustice, inflamed by a serial killer of white men who scalps his victims. But in the short-story collection "The Toughest Indian in the World," the laughter and tenderness returned -- as it does again in Alexie's new collection, "Ten Little Indians."

This doesn't mean he ignores painful issues. It's just that he finds subtler ways of making us pay attention. Most of his characters are members of the Spokane-Coeur d'Alene tribe in eastern Washington. Many are poor. Some drink too much; some are homeless. Most are unsure of who they are. "Indians were obsessed with authenticity," points out Corliss Joseph, the 19-year-old protagonist of the opening story, "Search Engine." "Colonized, genocided, exiled, Indians formed their identities by questioning the identities of other Indians."

But they are all too sure of what white society expects them to be: poor, alcoholic, blue-collar laborers, yet somehow exotic and spiritual. Corliss, a bright girl, knows she was "destined for a minimum-wage life of waiting tables or changing oil." Instead, she scrapes her way into college, where she lives alone rather than have a white roommate who would eventually come to see her as ordinary. "And if word got around that Corliss was ordinary ... she'd lose her power and magic."

Actually, she isn't ordinary at all. Her relatives, used to Spokane women earning more than their men -- and what would her proud male ancestors have thought of that? Corliss wonders -- expect her to become a lawyer or leader and "save our tribe." But her real love is poetry, even poetry by 19th century white people such as Emily Dickinson, whose compatriots were killing Indians.

Corliss uses computers, but she herself is the story's "search engine" of the title, bent on finding a fellow Spokane tribe member, Harlan Atwater, who published a lone book of poetry 30 years ago. She discovers the book in the Washington State University library, where nobody has ever checked it out. Alexie quotes Atwater's poems, which are rueful and funny; he enlists our sympathy for Corliss, a woman with a mission, a chugging little engine that can, as she journeys to Seattle, not just to track down Atwater but find out why nobody in the tribe has ever heard of him and why he stopped writing.

Things are only a little easier for those Native Americans who have made it into the middle class. In "Lawyer's League," a half-black half-Spokane who works as the governor's liaison to Washington's tribes gets into a fistfight with a white opponent in a basketball game over what he, but nobody else on the court, perceives as a racial slur. Attracted to a white woman, he knows it would derail his political ambitions if he married her.

In "What You Pawn I Will Redeem," a homeless alcoholic Spokane spots his grandmother's beaded powwow dance regalia in a pawnshop window in Seattle. The pawnbroker gives him 24 hours to raise the $1,000 to reclaim it. It's a hopeless task; whenever he makes a few dollars, following the code of the streets -- what he calls an "Indian thing" -- he buys his fellow derelicts food or whiskey. Yet having such a good heart, he deserves a break -- and the mellower Alexie of "Ten Little Indians" just might give him one.

At one point, Alexie compares Native American humor to Jewish humor. Both groups laugh for the same reasons: to keep from being overwhelmed by tragedy and to express the absurdity of being aliens and exiles in their own land, for having to "immigrate into its culture," in Corliss' words.

In "Flight Patterns," an "indigenous businessman" who wears braids with his pinstriped suit finds that his wry take on things matches that of an Ethiopian refugee who drives him in a taxi to the airport. In "Do Not Go Gentle," a grief-maddened father whose baby is dying mistakes a sex shop called Toys in Babeland for a toy store. He buys a giant brown vibrator, and he and his wife dance with it at the hospital as if it were a sacred rattle. The baby recovers. "We all like to think each person, place or thing is only itself," the father says. "A vibrator is a vibrator is a vibrator, right? But that's not true at all. Everything is stuffed to the brim with ideas and love and hope and magic and dreams."

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