Last week, Sherman Alexie debuted his newest book, War Dances, at Town Hall in a funny and often profane performance. (I nearly felt sorry for the father who was forced to drag his teenage daughter out of the sold-out performance hall not five minutes after Alexie took the stage, but I was too busy laughing with everyone else at Alexie's story about his drunken father's nickname for a clitoris—"the little man in the boat"—to be too concerned.)Between poems, stories, and fragments of memoir from Dances, Alexie invited Sean Nelson onstage to perform '80s standards—"Borderline," "They Don't Know," "Don't You (Forget About Me)"—on piano.

Nelson's nostalgic performances perfectly echoed Alexie's selections (a poem lamenting the loss of pay phones; a reminiscence about watching Enter the Dragon as a child in Spokane and leaving the theater screaming and punching furiously at the air, convinced that Bruce Lee was the toughest human being in the world). At the beginning of the reading, Alexie grumpily noted that he had been doing press interviews for his new book for a few weeks now, and not one book critic or litblogger had, by the author's own estimation, understood what War Dances was about: "The whole book is a fuckin' mixtape," he shouted, waving his arms with exasperation, and the statement was possibly the truest thing he said all night. It became obvious once he said it, and all the hints were there, waiting in the book for anyone to uncover them: Parts of the book are even named like pieces of music ("The Ballad of Paul Nonetheless" and "Ode for Pay Phones"), and there's a short story that serves as an elaborate cover song of an old number by William Blake ("Fearful Symmetry").

Dances is maybe the most personal book Alexie has ever published (and if you've ever read anything by Alexie, you understand how bold that statement really is), and it's certainly one of his most readable (ditto). The closest thing to a historical precedent for this book is Palm Sunday, Kurt Vonnegut's wildly entertaining self-described "autobiographical collage" of anecdotes, fiction, reminiscences, and other work. Dances begins with a short, seemingly autobiographical, poem about helplessly watching someone try to murder a dog, and it continues with a brutal short story about a successful film editor who accidentally murders a teenager. More poems and fiction follow, seemingly at random, with lists of memories and several dialogues—of both the Socratic and Fénelonian varieties—thrown in. It's only when the reader gets about halfway through the book that he realizes that this isn't some scrap-heap clearinghouse of everything that was left over on Alexie's desk: Each piece firmly builds on some part of the other, like the songs on a good mixtape. Sometimes the following piece is the exact opposite of the piece before it; Alexie is a kind enough host (and a nimble enough DJ) to know that after you talk about death for too long, it's good to let out with a quick, frivolous poem about Star Wars and Legos to cleanse the palate and provide a little balance.

But if Alexie intended for War Dances to be a mixtape—and all of Alexie's statements at the reading point to this being his intention from the beginning—this raises another question. Nobody makes a mixtape for themselves; mixtapes are always compiled (and compiled with real effort, as Alexie explains in "Ode to Mix Tapes": "It sometimes took days/To play, choose, pause,/Ponder, record, replay, erase/And replace... It was blue-collar work") with a recipient, a target, in mind. And he never explicitly stated whom this mixtape is for.

But the Town Hall reading offered a tantalizing hint about the intent of War Dances: Alexie barreled out of the gate with a story about the Amazon Kindle e-reader. When Alexie was widely quoted earlier this year as saying he wanted to hit a woman when he saw her reading a Kindle on an airplane, he reported being surprised at the outraged response. "Apparently, Kindle users don't have a good understanding of metaphor," he said. And when Amazon gave Alexie a Kindle to use, he remained unimpressed with the device, quoting a friend who called reading on his Kindle "like masturbating with a condom on." Alexie then read "Ode to Mix Tapes" and responded to his own piece by shutting the copy of War Dances he was reading from and gloating, "Can't fuckin' do that with a Kindle."

It's possible that War Dances, with its continual repetition of nostalgia, is a mixtape (itself an antiquated form of communication) for the Kindle, a showboating collection of work intended for the future from the past. The asymmetrical collection on display in War Dances works as a supremely gratifying reading experience in book form. You can turn one full page of text to find a nearly blank next page, a few short words trailing around the whiteness in a minimalist poem that leads to the next page, which is heavy with tiny lines of italics and huge chunks of text cascading end over end. Try to keep your eyes from being drawn into the call-and-response of a dialogue after being left dangling at the end of a poem; it's impossible. Even the way the book ends, with a final indignant, life-affirming shout at the world that leads into a blank page, is intended for the book-reading experience. It's the print version of those few hissing seconds at the end of a recording before the sharp SNAP of a tape recorder abruptly shutting itself off. And on a Kindle, where, as another of Alexie's friends put it, "every page is the first page," War Dances wouldn't have nearly the kind of power that it boasts in book form.

Alexie wears his nostalgia as a badge of honor. Before he began the reading, he told the audience that he suspected that the shaky future of the publishing industry meant that writers who were just getting started today were not "going to be able to build their careers the way I was," and so he thanked the crowd "for staying with me through all the good stuff and a lot of shit." It could have been an overly sentimental, drunken toast by a dewy-eyed old man at the end of a particularly raucous night of drinking. And it felt painfully true, too. recommended