Another Fistfight in Heaven

Phillip H. Round

By the second page of Sherman Alexie’s newest collection of short stories, Blasphemy, it’s pretty clear he isn’t going to pull any punches. As the narrator of “Cry Cry Cry” observes with reference to his meth-snorting, faux-wisdom-spouting cousin, “Whenever an Indian says he’s traditional, you know that Indian is full of shit.” There’s nothing “traditional” about Blasphemy, which gathers sixteen new and fifteen previously published short stories from a master of the genre whose career has spanned two decades.

Readers familiar with Alexie’s work may initially find Blasphemy an odd mix of “greatest hits” and more recent work. For Alexie purists, this may be the book’s first “blasphemy.” How can you tear “This is What it Means to Say Phoenix, Arizona” from the stories that surround it in The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven, the book upon which the film Smoke Signals was based? What does “The Toughest Indian in the World,” one of Alexie’s very best, have to do with more recent tales about the gentrification of a black neighborhood or a night owl who fantasizes about an all-night nail salon across the street?

As always, Alexie is slyly onto something larger. By putting new and classic work into conversation, he sustains a fascinating meditation on blasphemy itself—a word whose meanings shift and shimmer in these stories, ranging from simple irreverence to cosmic rupture. The present collection carries over several themes from Alexie’s earlier work—a love of basketball and powwow dancing, the corrosive effects of nostalgia. But his newer stories speak directly to 21st-century topics, both banal and far-reaching: Is Obama any good at hoops? Are wind farms on reservations really “green”? Why do we watch American Idol?

The collection opens with three new tales, “Cry Cry Cry,” “Green World,” and “Scars,” every bit as pungent as his earlier work, reminding us why Alexie is considered one of the best storytellers around. “Cry Cry Cry” is especially gripping, showcasing the author’s gift for spinning narrative out of everyday conversation in its unsparing depiction of the drug and gang cultures that infest the narrator’s reservation.

All the stories here—both new and old—explore how the clear lines of “tradition” and “family” blur when faced with a world that does not recognize such distinctions.

This opening tale sets up themes that appear in different forms throughout the collection. When faced with the decision of whether or not to help his cousin conceal a murder, the narrator treacherously rats out his relative and is subsequently shunned by his reservation community. Until, that is, he becomes a war dancer at powwows—replacing his meth-addicted cousin who was famous for dancing until, in an unhinged rage, he beat his ex-girlfriend and brutally killed her lover. As the narrator dances at the story’s end, women elders one by one rise and join him, trilling out their ritual embrace of his commitment to something larger than himself.

All of the stories that follow—both new and old—confront similar ethical quandaries, exploring how the clear lines of “tradition” and “family” blur when faced with a world that does not recognize such distinctions. In Alexie’s world, right living is a borderline endeavor. Or, as the blond Indian incongruously nicknamed “Fullblood” from the story “Scars” puts it, right living is “equal parts revenge and forgiveness … equal parts love and blood.”

Navigating these borders is what holds us together and drives us apart. When one of Alexie’s characters learns that his inept basketball buddy actually practices for hours alone late at night, he realizes, “Every man must have his secrets, right? And every man was supposed to ignore every other man’s secrets. That’s how the game was supposed to be played.” The burden of secrets, great and small, the realization that life is a game and that games are serious business, lead Alexie’s characters into momentary flashes of insight and self-destructive rages of despair.

Although Blasphemy’s newest stories reach beyond the reservations and urban Indian lives that populated Alexie’s earlier collections to consider more suburban themes and settings, they expand his reflections about Native storytelling in one critical way. Readers of this volume, as they navigate material old and new, will be reminded that stories must be retold to live—that stories hold truth, but not the truisms often labeled “traditional.” Stories morph and in new contexts cast shadows where once they shed light. This revelation alone makes the collection a must-read, whether one is a first-time reader of Alexie or an old hand. Either way, readers will find themselves discovering holiness in the strangest places (in donkey basketball and wind turbines, for instance), scattered among our blasphemous attempts to force the world to become an idol of our own making.