Sunday, August 16, 2009

WAR DANCES: Sherman Alexie

Sherman Alexie
The New Yorker
August 10 & 17, 2009

Sherman Alexie is most at home as story teller, and in War Dances he's at his best. The narrator (who we have no doubt is the voice of the author... but hold on to that thought) wakes up to find himself deaf in his right ear. Between accounts of clinic and hospital visits, MRI's that lead to an initial diagnosis of menngioma, he interleaves a second story about the death of his father (and a third about his WWII vet grandfather).
The associations are natural: anxiety concerning his own prognosis (is it benign? Is it cancer? ) reminding him of his father's last days. It turns out that the mennigioma is likely related to childhood hydrocephalus, which conveniently widens the range of the story to encompass the whole course of a life, from birth to death, transforming War Dances into a kind of meditation: the way a good comedian will use narrative and humor to lightly touch on matters easily crushed by more serious treatment. We don't need to have it pounded into our heads that a brain tumor is scary, that a child will carry in perpetual mourning the memory of a father destroyed by poverty, prejudice and alcohol; the reality will speak for itself.

The humor takes several forms. Self-conscious, self-deprecating, as in a conversation in the hospital while looking for a blanket for his father.
And then I saw him, another Native man, leaning against a wall near the gift shop. Well, maybe he was Asian--lots of those in Seattle. [...] Maybe he was Mexican, which is really kind of Indian, too, but not the kind that I needed. It's hard to tell sometimes what people are. Even brown people guess at the identity of other brown people.
"Hey," I said.
"Hey," the other man said.
"You Indian?" I asked.
"What tribe?
"I'm Spokane."
"My first wife was Spokane. I hated her."
"My first wife was Lummi. She hated me."
We laughed at the new jokes that instantly sounded old.
... or nervous black humor, as in a phone conversation with his doctor after waiting for the results of the MRI:
Alone and haunted, I wandered the mall, tried on clothes, and waited for my cell phone to right.
Two hours later, I wanted to murder everything, so I drove south to a coffee joint, a spotless place called Dirty Joe's. Yes, I was silly enough to think that I'd be calmer with a caffeinated drink.
As I sat outside in a wooden chair and sipped my coffee, I cursed the vague, rumbling, ringing noise in my ear. And yet when my cell phone rant I again held it to my deaf ear.
"Hello. Hello," I said and wondered if it was a prank call, then remembered and switched the phone to my left ear.
"Hello," my doctor said. "Are you there?"
"Yes," I said. "So what's going on?"
"There are irregularities in your head."
My head's always been irregular."
"It's good to have a sense of humor," the doctor said. "You have a small tumor that is called a meningioma. They grow in the meninges membranes that lie between your brain and your skull."
"Shit," I said. "I have cancer."
"Well," he said. "These kinds of tumors are usually non-cancerous. And they grow very slowly, so in six months or so we'll do another MRI. Don't worry. You're going to be O.K."
What about my hearing?" I asked.
"We don't know what is causing the hearing loss, but you should start a course of prednisone, a steroid, just to go with the odds. Your deafness might lessen if left alone, but we've had success with the steroids in bring back hearing. There are side effects, like insomnia, weight gain, night sweats, and depression."
"Oh boy," I said. "Those side effects might make up most of personality already. Will the 'roids also make me quick to pass judgement?  I've always wished I had a dozen more skin tags and moles."
The doctor chuckled. "You're a funny man."
  Three times in these passages the narrator points out the joke: defensive humor, but conscious, mindful, double edged. I really like this, the way Alexie turns the wit around--so the wit is there but less than the main point, never an end in itself. Irony de-fanged, like Woody Allen of Manhattan or Annie Hall.
  The story develops by episodes: short entitled scenes. MY KAFKA BAGGAGE, where he finds a dead cockroach in his luggage. SYMPTOMS: hearing loss, which reminds him of a story of a man who had cockroaches extracted from his ears. BLANKETS: ...for his father after his foot was amputated, shivering from cold in a hospital corridor.


These marked divisions allow for some deviations from straight story telling. EXIT INTERVIEW takes the form of an imaginary Q and A, son to father. It begins with what amount to one or two line jokes:
* True or False: When a reservation-raised Native American dies of alcoholism, it should be considered death by natural causes [...]
* Is it true that the only literary term hat has any real meaning in the Native American world is "road movie"?
These become increasingly personal and emotionally resonant.
* Sir, in your thirty-nine years as a parent you broke your children's hearts, collectively and individually, six hundred and twelve times, and you did this without ever striking any human being in anger. Does this absence of physical violence make you a better man than you might otherwise have been?
* Without using the words "man" or "good," can you please define what it means to be a good man?
In the middle of EXIT INTERVIEW, Alexie has inserted a poem and follow-up commentary.

· Your son wrote this poem to explain one of the most significant nights in his life:

Mutually Assured Destruction

When I was nine, my father sliced his knee
With a chainsaw. But he let himself bleed
And finished cutting down one more tree
Before his boss drove him TO EMERGENCY.

Late that night, stoned on morphine and beer,
My father needed my help to steer
His pickup into the woods. “Watch for deer,”
My father said. “Those things just appear

Like magic.” It was an Indian summer
And we drove through warm rain and thunder,
Until we found that chainsaw, lying under
The fallen pine. Then I watched, with wonder,

As my father, shotgun-rich and impulse-poor,
Blasted that chainsaw dead. “What was that for?”
I asked. “Son,” my father said. “Here’s the score.
Once a thing tastes blood, it will come for more.”

· Well, first of all, as you know, you did cut your knee with a chainsaw, but in direct contradiction to your son’s poem:

(a) You immediately went to the emergency room.

(b) Your boss called your wife, who drove you to the emergency room.

(c) You were given morphine, but even you were not stupid enough to drink alcohol while on serious narcotics.

(d) You and your son did not get into the pickup that night.

(e) And, even if you had driven the pickup, you were not injured seriously enough to need your son’s help with the pedals and/or the steering wheel.

(f) You never in your life used the word “appear,” and you certainly never used the phrase “like magic.”

(g) You think that “Indian summer” is a questionable seasonal reference for an Indian poet to use.

(h) What the fuck is “warm rain and thunder”? Well, everybody knows what “warm rain” is, but what the fuck is “warm thunder”?

(i) You never went looking for that chainsaw, because it belonged to the Spokane Tribe of Indians, and what kind of freak would want to reclaim the chainsaw that had just cut the shit out of his knee?

(j) You also agree that the entire third stanza of this poem sounds like a Bruce Springsteen song, and not necessarily one of the great ones.

(k) And yet “shotgun-rich and impulse-poor” is one of the greatest descriptions your son has ever written and probably redeems the entire poem.

(l) You never owned a shotgun. You did own a few rifles in your youth, but did not own so much as a pellet gun during the last thirty years of your life.

(m) You never said, in any context, “Once a thing tastes blood, it will come for more.”

(n) But, as you read it, you know that is absolutely true and does indeed sound suspiciously like your entire life philosophy.
This is good to keep in mind when we're tempted to too narrowly identify the narrator with the author. What we are reading is not a memoir, not a representation of remembered events, but a writer's response to them, a reconfiguration pointing, not back into the past replayed, but into life beyond nostogia; an artful betrayal of naked reality that frees us from it--to live and breath in the present, prepared again to step forward into a still unconditioned future.

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