Unless you're actively not paying attention, you know Sherman Alexie—we review his books, gave him a Genius Award for literature in 2008, and run his short fiction every week in the back of the paper. But the release of his new book of short stories, Blasphemy (Grove Press, $27), demands our attention. It's half career retrospective—three of the stories were title stories in previous collections—and half new work. Rather than writing yet another profile-review, I decided to take the book apart, piece by piece, and see how it works by reviewing every one of the 31 stories in the collection, in order.
"Cry Cry Cry"
"Forget crack, my cousin," begins the first sentence of Blasphemy. "Meth is the new war dancer." Meth also leads to a robbery gone wrong and some over-the-top violence that makes this a weird choice for an opener. But Alexie's suggestion of the "battered train wreck" connecting past abuses to present crimes adds much-needed depth to the story, setting the tone for a book about trying to love the unlovable.
Alexie makes a rare foray into science fiction with this story of a man living at the bottom of the food chain in the kind of government-run, environmentally friendly world that gives Republicans night sweats. It's brutal and sad, and you'll finish it wanting more.
A Christine Gregoire stand-in visits a prison and goes off-script while chatting with a man who "manslaughtered [his] father." Alexie doesn't often write directly about politics and politicians, but when he does, it becomes clear that everything he writes is political.
"The Toughest Indian in the World"
One of Alexie's best and most famous, the surprisingly tender ending of "Toughest Indian" now reads at least a decade ahead of its time.
Bringing to mind nothing so much as Kurt Vonnegut's later autobiographical sketches, "War Dances" ties Alexie's father's death to the author's own mortality during a search for a hospital blanket that isn't impossibly thin. Despite all that grimness, it is still one of the funniest things he's ever written.
"This Is What It Means to Say Phoenix, Arizona"
In a book that looms over you like a cliff spackled with emotional handholds, this story feels strangely adrift, aloft, and quickly descending.
Many of the stories in Blasphemy have only one emotional peak, a single image to reward the reader for sticking with it, but "Midnight Basketball" has two: an early discussion about President Obama's basketball skills ("If Obama pulled that on me, I'd block it like some racist-ass redneck senator from Alabama") and a later, surprisingly affecting scene that I won't ruin here.
A shrub among redwoods.
This otherwise funny character sketch about a pale, self-loathing Indian is haunted by the death of John T. Williams, as a homeless Indian carver is shot dead by Spokane police and becomes a symbol for everyone who feels oppressed.
"What Ever Happened to Frank Snake Church?"
The dead father in this story seems distant compared to the dying man so vividly sketched in "War Dances," but a long, awkward eulogy that makes up the heart of "Frank Snake Church" beats loudly and proudly.
"The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven"
The first of many stories in Blasphemy that spin around uncomfortable encounters in 7-Elevens—you could almost divide the volume in half, one half obsessed with grief and the other centering on convenience-store mishaps—"Lone Ranger" is one of Alexie's most exemplary stories.
"The Approximate Size of My Favorite Tumor"
You know when you're fucked and you know you're fucked and everyone around you both knows you're fucked and knows you know you're fucked and everything about the whole fucking thing is fucked, but you all laugh anyway?
Another high point in the collection, "Indian Country" imagines an Indian author who wants to leave everything behind but can't seem to stop accumulating life all around him wherever he goes.
"Because My Father Always Said He Was the Only Indian Who Saw Jimi Hendrix Play 'The Star-Spangled Banner' at Woodstock"
How, exactly, Alexie mines something compelling and lively out of what is possibly the most tiresome trope in modern fiction—a reminiscence about the 1960s—is kind of a mystery.
"Scenes from a Life"
This is a welcome, rare-ish excursion into a female narrative voice—a white woman, no less—that invokes the best of Vonnegut without being slavishly imitative. The narrator zips around in time, reshuffling her various romantic regrets into a proud and delicate personal history.
This is drive-by fiction: Opening with a surreal image of a tiny figure inside an egg and ending with a lack as big as the planet, "Breakfast" barely spans two pages, but it somehow sneaks inside your head, throws down its luggage, and loudly announces it's staying.
Despite the crackling language—"If two insomniacs fell in love, you know there'd be a murder-suicide"—this dialogue set in a 24-hour nail salon smacks a bit too much of generic literary fiction.
"Breaking and Entering"
Written years before Trayvon Martin and "Stand Your Ground" became prominent shards in our fractured national vocabulary, Alexie's portrait of uneasy race relations understood exactly the kind of conversation we Americans needed to have.
"Do You Know Where I Am?"
Another broken marriage—since John Updike, literary fiction is a church built on the backs of cheating married couples—escapes the shoegaze trap by extending the scope of the story by four decades, to draw things out to a natural, satisfying, surprisingly hopeful conclusion.
Every year of primary school becomes its own perfect distillation of an Aesop's fable in this story that is structurally unlike all the others in Blasphemy. It's a book of stories nestled inside another book of stories.
Of all the brief story splinters in this collection, "Gentrification" feels the most mannered and complete, but it also seems to beg for expansion, like a meaningful argument that is not yet convincing.
Hungry, angry, depressed. When Alexie published "Fame" in A&P earlier this year, I wondered if I should be worried for him.
A very public, yet somehow very imagined, extramarital affair is explained and dismissed, with a closing line that collapses the border between fantasy and hyperreal discomfort: "So, damn."
Behold one of the best character descriptions ever written: "He was a bucket of pizza and beer tied to a broomstick."
This portrait of a marriage on the brink of... something... features a weirdly sexy infidelity sequence with a disgusting, unsexy man and a closing scene that leans on the portent a bit too much. Stories that end on bridges feel like a trap, and stories that end randomly with suicides feel doubly so.
Starting now, you have four pages in which to write something akin to a horrible, melancholic, amazing two-hour noir film about an accidental death in a marijuana field. Go.
Stuck in my head after reading this one: "Do you believe in magic/In a young girl's heart?"
"The Search Engine"
Another strong female character encounters three very different men in a study of failure, dignity, and knowledge.
This portrait of a young married couple discussing the uncertainty of their future feels more like a monologue.
Something wildly amusing—donkey bas- ketball—transforms into something nerve- racking and unforgettable in a great war story that doesn't once mention war.
"What You Pawn I Will Redeem"
Laden as it is with tradition and poverty and dignity and heartbreak and onyx-black comedy and a not-quite-indistinct whisper of hope, this story is still quite possibly the best Alexie's ever been.