September 01, 2007

Alexie mellows out

Talking Volumes:  Man of many tribesIn his first work of fiction for young adults, the Seattle poet, novelist, humorist, screenwriter and master of the short story has created an endearing teen protagonist in his own likeness and placed him in the here and now: Arnold (Junior) Spirit, 14, is a poor kid on the Spokane Indian Reservation in Wellpinit, Wash. How poor? A bucket of Kentucky Fried Chicken is a godsend, not a guilty pleasure, and a trip to the vet for his sick dog (and best friend), Oscar, is out of the question.

Because of the hydrocephalus, Junior suffers frequent seizures and fevers, has extra teeth, a stutter, a lisp and lopsided vision corrected with government-issued black plastic glasses that make him look like "an Indian grandpa." All of this, of course, incites the Darwinian brutality of his peers, who beat him and berate him with taunts of "hydro head" and "retard." He also has loving, if flawed, parents.

This much is true about Alexie's own life. And so, too, is the life-altering decision Junior ultimately makes to go to school in nearby Reardan, where he will be "the only Indian except for the mascot."
Why he's changed:Expanded notions of tribalism, sympathetic biracial characters and empathic excursions into the minds of both victims and victimizers? Is this the same Sherman Alexie who wrote "Indian Killer" (1996), a novel that simmers with race-based rage?

The terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, "changed me tremendously," Alexie said. "I saw the end game of tribalism--it ends up with people flying planes into buildings. I've worked hard since then to shed the negative parts of tribal thinking, which almost always involve some sort of fear," the starting point for violence, he said. "'Indian Killer' is very much a tribal and fundamentalist book. I've really disowned it."
How he's changed:Jim Lenfestey of Minneapolis, who also has taught Alexie's work, said Alexie has matured and mellowed, but hasn't lost his edge.

"He'll still swing crisply at all around him who presume, but he swings from a different center of gravity now," Lenfestey said. "That center of gravity is more Sherman Alexie as father, citizen of the world and prosperous man, but still against all forms of idiocy, none excepted."

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