Sherman Alexie – Blasphemy (Book Review)

Blasphemy cover

Sherman Alexie – Blasphemy

Blasphemy is a short story collection about the Native American experience. Or at least, it’s about the experience of being Sherman Alexie. There is so much commonality between them, from pickup basketball games to 7-Elevens to classic Country Western, that it feels strongly filtered through the author’s own interests. Almost every single story takes place in Spokane, Washington, or occasionally with a Spokane Indian living elsewhere. By the time a later story mentions that there are only three thousand people with Spokane blood in the world, it feels like you’ve already read about half of them.

I recommend spacing these stories out over a several-month span, though, because as long as you can keep them from feeling repetitive, some are really good. Alexie writes painfully honest stories about life, and while the Native American perspective provides an interesting angle, most of it is universal. Still, Alexie’s loving but irreverent explanation of Indian culture is part of the draw. The protagonists are unromantic and sometimes sarcastic about their heritage. In the opening of the first story, the narrator explains that “powwow is like high school, except with more feathers and beads” and “whenever an Indian says he’s traditional, you know that Indian is full of shit”. But there’s respect behind the brutal honesty, and it culminates in “The Search Engine”, a story about a young woman and old man whose lives have both been driven by concerns about whether they are “Indian enough”.

The prose is straightforward and efficient, but literary, with an approach like a typical festival film. The events it covers are a mix of life-changing and mundane, but all are fraught with meaning… and often have no real conclusion. It’s a mixed success. Some quick character portraits are simply brilliant (“Idolized” may be the best one-page story I’ve ever read), while other times main characters feel stupid. It’s hard to have any sympathy for the successful author who starts listlessly giving away his possessions when he’s stood up by a woman he hadn’t yet met in person, and I’m just confused by the middle-aged man who walked home naked after an especially frustrating basketball game. (The story offers no help, saying only that he felt the need to “protest” something. But after the description of strangers and neighbors staring at him, I expected some sort of consequences for his public nudity. It’s apparently supposed to be symbolic only, so nothing comes of it.) Those are counter-balanced by excellent moments, though, like the questions about race after a man shoots a teenage burglar, or the fumbling ritual dances that open and close the book.

Blasphemy suffers a bit by being so comprehensive: At over 450 pages, one third of it could easily be dropped. But the great thing about short stories is that you can space them out. I read this over a two-month time period, and I think I would have liked it more if I had gone even slower. True, Alexie can be repetitive, but he justifies that by having worthwhile things to say.

Grade: B

 

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  1. Okay. I will take it slowly.

    • jompoi
    • May 3rd, 2013

    I agree with your Grade B rating as the subject definitely has to be interesting to the reader. I loved the stories and the characters, albeit, some more than others. He certainly writes with brutal honesty, not only about the Native American experience but about the human experience as well. Perhaps the book especially appealed to me due to the fact that I was raised near many Native Americans and once lived on Cherokee Nation land. It was a page-turner for me.

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