'Blasphemy' heralds return of dark comic

Hector Tobar / Los Angeles Times /


“Blasphemy: New and Selected Stories” by Sherman Alexie (Grove Press, $27)

Sherman Alexie’s characters live in a kind of dreamscape, a limbo between Native American and white culture, between city life and the reservation.

All sorts of fantastic, improbable things happen in this in-between space. Students channel famous Indian warriors in their high school classes. Donkeys are taught to excel at basketball, the national sport of every Indian tribe.

Against all odds the Native American characters in “Blasphemy,” Alexie’s new anthology of short stories, wander, stumble and blunder their way into moments of clarity and redemption. And they are liberated by laughter.

“The two funniest tribes I’ve been around are Indians and Jews,” one of his characters quips, “so I guess that says something about the inherent humor of genocide.”

Over the years, Alexie has carved out a space in American literature as the great, tragicomic bard of the modern Native American experience. The stories in “Blasphemy,” written over the course of the last two decades, offer ample proof why.

Consider “What You Pawn I Will Redeem,” a story that reads like an upside down, demented Bible parable about Jackson, a hopelessly lost Seattle alcoholic.

“I’m not going to tell you my particular reasons for being homeless,” Jackson says, “because it’s my secret story, and Indians have to work hard to keep secrets from hungry white folks.”

Jackson is blundering around Seattle with his drinking buddies when he spots a feathered headdress — it looks like the lost “powwow regalia” that belonged to the grandmother he never knew. Upon closer inspection he finds the secret clue his family left in every headdress. So he undertakes a “quest” to earn the $1,000 he’ll need to buy it back.

What follows is a melancholy, tender journey through the world of drunken Seattle. Jackson’s Indian friends help him on his quest, and then disappear again and again. Along the way, he has a memorable, brief encounter with some lost Aleuts from Alaska who’ve been waiting at the Seattle docks 11 years for a ship to come in.

Read that story, and many of the others in “Blasphemy,” and you’ll feel you’ve been transported inside the soul of a deeply wounded people. But they are a people too comfortable in their brown skins to allow those wounds to break them. Instead, the Native American people in Alexie’s stories hold on to their dreams and to their traditions. They talk again and again about being warriors like Crazy Horse — but their battles are in school classrooms or on the basketball court.

Reading Alexie is like listening to a man tell stories by a campfire. His writing isn’t the most stylish you’ll read, but the tales themselves are unforgettable and filled with a dizzying array of characters and magical incidents.