Saturday, April 26, 2014

The Lone Ranger, Tonto, and Sherman Alexie

Years ago, I saw a movie I really enjoyed - Smoke Signals. It's the story of a young Native American man, Victor Joseph, and his friend, Thomas Builds-the-Fire, traveling to retrieve the ashes of Victor's father, and to come to terms with Victor's past and his troubled relationship with his father. It's sprinkled with humor, Thomas's story-telling, and glimpses into contemporary Native American life. It made me want to try some fry bread and to wonder what the truth is about John Wayne's teeth.

I knew it was written by Native American author Sherman Alexie, and at the bookstore I stumbled across his short story collection, The Lone Ranger And Tonto Fistfight in Heaven; one of the stories in the collection became the basis for Smoke Signals, and Victor and Joseph are featured in a number of the stories.

The collection was his first, and I suspect he has grown as a writer since given the number of awards he's received. I have to read more of his later work to give a fair assessment of him as a writer.

As for the collection, it's enjoyable. It contains good writing, but I think it's uneven, and, to be honest, like a lot of fiction from the 80s and early 90s. What sets it apart from other works by equally - and maybe even more talented - writers is that it is from a Native American perspective.

The collection got me to thinking about that latter fact. Would Alexie be as acclaimed, would he have been as successful were he not Native American? Perhaps. Even in this early work Alexie is clearly talented. But as I noted, there were other writers who were equally as good, but did not have something to set them apart. One of the best writers I've ever met is a fellow who had the misfortune of being a middle class Irish Catholic lad from Syracuse (NY) who, in my opinion, was a better writer than Alexie was at the time this collection was published. The fellow was a great reporter, an amusing raconteur, and a talented songwriter. But he had nothing to make him stand out - he was just some middle class Irish Catholic Central New Yorker - so he continues to make a living as a journalist and singing and playing in various bar bands, winning local awards and some journalistic recognition, but not getting contracts for novels, national awards for short story collections, record and movie deals, and so on.

I thought of other talented writers who've gained recognition not just for their talent, but because they are Native American, Latina, feminist, Chinese, gay, geriatric, and so on, and they write from those perspectives. It's part of a trend to celebrate diversity (or to atone for past wrongs). Fifty years ago, many of these now-acclaimed writers may have just been working journalists or high school teachers who continued to write because they had to. Who knows if their works will be widely read 50 years from now.

This is not a criticism of Alexie. I will read more of his writing; this collection was good enough to keep my interest, and I want to see how he developed as a writer. And I do have a fondness for Native American spirituality and perceptions of the world.

Verdict: The collection is worth a read - or at the very least, worth sampling. It does contain some coarse language and mild discussion of sexuality that is, however, appropriate for the characters.

Oh, and see Smoke Signals if you get a chance - if for no other reason than to hear Victor and Thomas singing "John Wayne's Teeth."

But also read works by unfortunates who just happen to be regular Irish Catholic Central New Yorkers with no "diversity" to exploit.

It's tough being average.

Pax et bonum

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