The Exaggeration of Despair
in Sherman Alexie's Reservation Blues


Gloria Bird

A prolific writer, Sherman Alexie (Spokene/Coeur d'Alene) has become an enigma on the literary scene in only a few years' time. Most reviewers - as far from the rural reservation setting as they come - have heaped praise upon Alexie's work as representative of contemporary reservation life. Philip Patrick, "who works and writes in New York," and whose commentary otherwise on the absence of music in a novel about music is perceptive, makes the characteristic claims: "With what can only be described as a deep understanding of the hell and joys that must be reservation life, Alexie soars in Reservation Blues," Alexie brings to the page the life of the Spokanes," and, "Alexie 's reservation, is as evocative as James Baldwin's Harlem or Dorothy Allison's backwater Carolinas."

This review questions the assumption that because someone is Indian what they produce is automatically an accurate representation. It addresses specific problems with the construed, generic "Indian qualities; that are attributed to diverse tribal peoples. It attempts to discuss the elements of Alexie's latest work Reservation Blues (Atlantic Monthly Press, 1995) that in the spirit of an Indian Spike Lee, contribute to a portrait of an exaggerated version of reservation life, one that perpetuates many of the stereotypes of native people and presents problems for native and non-native readers alike.

The resemblance to other script-minded novels, and the cultural (mis)representation in Spike Lee films should be examined in relation to how native culture is modified in Reservation Blues. In film, Spike Lee selectively exposes little known aspects of African American culture and life and has been credited with having successfully interpreted that experience from an insider's perspective to the main stream audience. The mixed -messages generated by Lee in film are analogous to the effect of Reservation Blues upon the mainstream in interpreting the representations of Indian. Examples from the novel will be examined in detail later. I would like to begin by comparing how Reservation BluesReservation Blues resembles script.

In Reservation Blues, the cinematic style is apparent from the start. Like script, on page one, the cast of characters from Sherman Alexie's earlier work appear, as well as the newcomer to the reservation Robert Johnson, the legendary bluesman. Before we are off the first page, we pan in to a "close- up" of Robert Johnson "a small man with very dark skin end huge hands, he wore a brown suit that looked good from a distance but grew more ragged frayed at the cuffs. as he came into focus" (3) [Italics mine] The script-like prose is comparable to Fanny Flagg's novel, Fried Green Tomatoes At The Whistle Stop Cafe, where if you've read the book, you've basically experienced the storyline of the film on which it is based. "Chapters" are arranged in "scenes" that are followed in order in the film.

The traps of popular culture inform Reservation Blues to the extent that discussion of pop culture and postmodern sensibilities need be called upon I begin with a generalization In Reservation Blues, alluding to popular culture as a literary strategy does not serve as either a parody or as a serious interrogation of popular culture. It is way of carrying the story from one subject to another.

Pop culture is a self-referencing medium. Audiences need to be informed and pop-culture-sophisticated to 'get' the messages that flood the TV and movie screens. In the same way, the following dialogue between Victor and Thomas exemplifies how the novel relies on readership exposure to film: "You sound like we 're in some goddamn reservation coming-of-age movie. Who the fuck you think you are? Billy Jack? Who's writing your dialogue"(211)? Again, toward the conclusion of the novel, Victor is visited by the ghost of Junior Polatkin "Happy reservation fucking Halloween," Junior said, and Victor screamed, which made Junior scream, too. They traded screams for awhile" (288). In case you didn't catch the allusion, Alexie fills you In. Victor addresses Junior,"What do you think this is, An American Werewolf in London" (2B8). The comic entry of the visitation - a scene that is stolen directly from the film An American Werewolf In London - overrides the seriousness of Victor's questioning as to why Junior committed suicide. The scene self-consciously makes references both to itself and the film on which it is based. Allusion is a device through which Reservation Blues becomes self-conscious of its own constructions.

In what is termed cosmopolitan or postmodern literature in my understanding of its manifestations - might find a limited context if we are speaking of its connection to literary and media productions where the images that have been produced from a period are mirrored back to the original producers. A colleague has pointed out that referring to pop culture is not the problem it becomes problematic, however, when this is the only exposure to native literature to which mainstream readers are exposed.

In thinking about the purposes of native literary production, the temptation to use western theories to inform one's reading is not the type of engagement with the literature I find most useful. But I do have questions about how we might productively discuss Reservation Blues in its connection to postmodern sensibilities, if only to speculate. Foucault, in questioning "What is an Author?" in his essay of the same title, speaks about the disappearance of the author as a development "in the effacement of the writing subject's individual characteristics," where "the writing subject cancels out the signs of his particular individuality" (102). The end result, so he writes. is that "the writer is reduced to nothing more than the singularity of his absence." His ideas on the "disappearance - or death - of the author" are taken to the extreme by Italo Calvino. Calvino, for instance, has taken the dissolution of the author to a new level, the dissolution of the narrator as well. Lacking the identity of a protagonist, a reader is forced to enter the "void" to identify with the narrator. When we begin to search for the sense of such self-referencing (in the postmodern sense) in Reservation Blues, the motive for its literary strategy begins to blur. Self-referencing here is author-intrusive; the author does not want to be forgotten as he constructs the story, and continually reminds us of the singularity of his presence.

In the end, at least for this writer, reading Reservation Blues as a postmodern novel does nor work except in limited ways. Reservation Blues is certainly a product of postmodern film. For my purposes, my reading is informed by a post-colonial dialogue on literary production in colonial contexts that, as far as I can tell, exist everywhere in Third/New World discussions, with the exception of this country. When we change our focus to a native readership and what is being represented to us and about us, a very different set of relationships must be examined. As a native reader, my concern is with the colonialist influence on the native novel, and how that influence shapes the representation of native culture to a mainstream audience. It also cannot help but shape the native reader's relationship to the native novel

In his book Decolonizing The Mind, the African writer Ngugi Wa Thiong'o discusses African writers who 'prey' upon their culture to produce works written in colonial tongues, and then claim to invest the colonizer's language with an Africanness. There is a parallel with Alexie's Reservation Blues in that it attempts to invest his novel with Indianness, but ultimately 'preys' upon a variety of native cultures along the way. The examples are numerous, and include for instance, the use of the greeting "ya-hey," which is a contrived expression. One can only speculate that it is based upon the Diné greeting, ya'at'eeh (ya-tey). Mainstream readers who do not have access to native language usage, either Salish or Diné will not have a way to make an accurate assessment of its appearance in the novel and will rely solely upon what they read as being representationally accurate. When we examine how stereotypes of Indian are returned to the source of their original production and the dynamics that come into play in Reservation Blues, the impress of colonial influence become more apparent.

There is the nameless character who is described as having "cheekbones so big that he knocked people over when he moved his head from side to side" (11), a feature that signals his Siouan descendance. Exaggerated high cheekbones plays upon an unquestioned characterization of native people; and the most prominent "Indian" is, of course, the Plains Sioux. This character is referred to as "the-man-who-was-probably-Lakota." Bible-thumping "crazy old Indian man" (11) prophesying the end of the world. Sioux culture is disparaged in the personage of this "man who-was-probably-Lakota." The character is never humanized because Alexie neglected to attribute to him a name, Yet, Thomas appropriates the Siouan address "all my relations" his dream of a sweatlodge (instead of the Northwest sweathouse) scene. The insensitivity of native people who exploit and 'prey' upon Indian cultures is another uncomfortable example of appropriation. Stereotyping native peoples does not supply a native readership with soluble ways of undermining stereotypes, but becomes a part of the problem, and returns an image of a generic "Indian" back to the original producers of that image.

The danger is with the gross representation becoming implicit. That is, when people (who haven't grown up on an Indian reservation) decide this representation is accurate and, like Philip Patrick, reinforce that assumption back to a generaI readership, who, in turn, have no empirical knowledge as a basis is for comparison. Mainstream readers trust the "native" novel mistaking it for complete representation. Reservation Blues as the representative "native" novel, in actuality omits the core of native community, and exists solely in the marginal realm of Its characters who are all misfits: social and cultural anomalies. It is a partial portrait of a community wherein there is no evidence of Spokane culture or traditions, or anything uniquely Spokane. There are no signs of elders, with the exception of Big Mom whose figure is exalted to, mythical disproportion. Pan-lndianism becomes the axiom for lndianness, a borrowing from various native culture, and traditions that in the end, misconstrue what is Indian, or specifically Spokane, to the general public.

The idea of 'preying' on one's culture is disturbing. Like Spike Lee, who, has attempted to take on interracial romance as the subject of film, along with the tensions and the controversy surrounding such an alliance, Alexie, too attempts to explain and vindicate, and at the same time to discredit, Victor's attraction to white women. To Junior's question, "Why you like while women so much?" Victor's scatological, "Don't You know? Bucks prefer white tail" (233), is basically a non-answer.

It is the Indian woman's voice via Chess who speaks for Indian women and, we are told takes the "traditional" stance. Chess thinks men like "Junior and Victor arc traitors" who are "betraying their DNA" (82). Her argument runs the gamut from "preservation," as in survival of the race, to the apologetic, "as traditional as it sounds, l think Indian men need Indian women. I think only Indian women can take care of Indian men. Jeez, we give birth to Indian men. We feed them. We hold them when they cry. Then they run off with white women." (81) She seems to imply that only "traditional" Indians are concerned with self-preservation [in terms of blood quantum] and are the only ones to express racist sentiments regarding interracial mixing. It is an odd perspective, given that we are told early in the novel that the Spokane "were mostly a light-skinned tribe" (4) which implies that the Spokanes are the products of interracial mixing. Given that background, it's unlikely that Thomas, Junior, and Victor are all "full-bloods," as is claimed.

Calling Chess's attitudes "traditional" does not ring true. Most tribes traditionally intermarried with neighboring bands and tribes as a way of strengthening the blood lines, and frequently adopted new blood into the tribe.1 Earlier, Chess summarizes the bleak outlook for Indian women in choosing a partner:

When Indian women begin the search for an Indian man, they carry a huge list of qualifications. He has to have a job. He has to be kind, intelligent, and funny. He has to dance and sing. He should know how to iron his own clothes. Braids would be nice. But as the screwed-up Indian men stagger through their lives, Indian men need only to have their own teeth to get snagged. (74-5)

On the ore hand, we have the "traditional" view; on the other, the bleak "reality" for Indian women in their selection of men. Which is it that guides women in their choices then, blood quantum or choppers? The options are ridiculous, and in the end the relationships between Indian men and women are not invested with any seriousness.

The male characters, too, have their own thoughts on the subject: "Junior knew that white women were trophies for Indian boys. He always figured getting a white woman was like [the Plains tribes' practice] of counting coup or stealing horses, like the best kind of revenge against white men" (233). Then there is the naivete of Thomas, who "agreed with Chess, but he also knew about the shortage of love in the world. He wondered if people should celebrate love wherever it's found, since it is so rare. He worried about the children of mixed-blood marriages. The half-breed kids at the reservation school suffered through worse beatings than Thomas ever did" (82). His logic is skewed, and simple self-preservation guides his motive for empathy. His view that there is a shortage of love in the world is almost New Age and, if true, still evades the issue.

In terms of its relationship to script: 'effect' and 'prop' seem key to any discussion of the novel beginning with the stereotypical employ of the names of the characters: Thomas Builds-the-Fire, the Warm Water sisters, and Lester Falls Apart. The community of Wellpinit and its surroundings are intimate props, familiar scenery that is vacant of any emotional investment. There is none of the sweeping, lyrical prose of Momaday's The House Made of Dawn whose lines like, "The canyon is a ladder to the plain", stay in the mind for years. Neither is there the detail of Silko's Ceremony wherein description of the New Mexican landscape is dense with meaning:

He stood on the edge of the rimrock and looked down below; the canyons and valleys were thick powdery black; their variations of height and depth were marked by a thinner black color. . . . He took a deep breath of cold mountain air; there were no boundaries; the world below and the sand paintings inside became the same that night. The mountains from all the directions had been gathered there that night. (145)

Instead we are told matter-of-factly how, "Benjamin Pond used to be called Benjamin Lake, but then a white man named Benjamin Lake moved to the reservation to teach biology at the Tribal High School. All the Indians liked the teacher so much that they turned the lake info a pond to avoid confusion" (26). Given the intrusive, omni-presence of the narrator, it is odd here that Alexie's narrator distances himself from "the Indians," as if he were a non-native observer. This, of course, could be attributed to Alexie's third-person narration that automatically distances the narrator.

Character development is inconsistent and, while I want to say that it is a human foible to be inconsistent, in this novel the danger is in the contradictory sentiments of the characters who then become unreliable. It's Chess, again, who, while acceding that "everybody wants to he an Indian," appears to sympathize when she says that, "Not every white person wants to kill Indians. You know most any white who joins up with Indians never wants to leave. It's always been that way" (168). In the same argument only a page later says, "But not everybody is an Indian. It's an exclusive club. . . Why do all these white people think they can be Indian all of a sudden" (169) ? Thomas, who never seems to quite manage to make distinctions, answers' l've aIways had a theory that you ain't really Indian unless, at some point in your life, you didn't want to be Indian." Contradicting sentiments ooze from the mouths of the characters, and as readers, we can never be sure where anybody stands. Postmodern irony rules. The characters, in the end, contradict both themselves and one another. The effect is a 1eveling of values and weakening of emotional investment, in particular, native aesthetic values are undermined. If this is the predicament of uncertainties posited by postmodernism, it contributes to the weak link in the production of the native novels that rely on these tendencies. Too, as a parody, the novel operates to reinforce that native people are incapable of self-analysis or thoughtful commentary on contemporary social dilemmas.

In Reservation Blues the introduction of elements for 'affect," likewise becomes stripped of emotional investment. It is a literary strategy that is consistent throughout the novel. For instance, the historical event (in which over 700 horses of the Spokane Tribe were slaughtered by the U.S. cavalry) is introduced through the character Big Mom. However, it is introduced less for its significance and more for the convenient metaphor of the horses whose scream appears throughout as a refrain. The refrain "the Indian horses screamed," repeats so many times so as to draw attention to itself and begins to serve as a background musical score.

The horses, and Big Mom's relationship to them, are rendered, again, matter-of-factly, and from the position of an observer who stands outside of the events with no connection to them. No explanation is given for the killing of the horses. But the horses are assigned more weight a little later as we become witness to the killing of a single remaining colt in "close up":

The colt shivered as the officer put his pistol between its eyes and pulled the trigger. That colt fell to the grass of the clearing, to the sidewalk outside a reservation tavern, to the cold, hard coroner's table in a Veterans Hospital. ( 10) [ltalics, mine]

The horses take on a new metaphorical significance, that of the Indians themselves who fall victim outside of bars or as unrecognized veterans of war. The reduction of Indian existence to defeat reads as internalized oppression, of buying into a vision of ourselves as dying/vanishing and simply returns the representation of Indians as they are produced in American literature and in the media back to itself. The central metaphor of the novel associates Indians to the slaughtered horses as fallen victims of the bottle and a country that does not love us. This image, in turn, is remade only two paragraphs later, as the "horses" reincarnate as a multitude of famous musicians including Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix, Elvis and Marvin Gaye. The quick fix allusion to pop culture sets up Big Mom as the teacher of all good (and troubled) musicians and savior of Robert Johnson. The larger-than life character of Big Morn is not just a teacher, but is also a catalyst for all major American musical forms (jazz, rockabilly,, rock 'n' roll).

Intermittently sprinkled throughout the novel like bait are sage-smudging, stickgame, sweetgrass enough to titillate the curiosity of non-native readers - while simultaneously mishmashing Indian cultures to create a pan-lndian, non-specific representation of an Indian community that is flawed because of its exaggerated "Indian" qualifies. Thus, commodity food appears every time the characters return to their HUD house, and the characters overuse (sometimes incorrectly) the Red English term "enit." Exaggeration seems to be the rule (a symptom of postmodern literature); it is the exaggeration of despair without context that doesn't offer enough substance to be anything more than a "spoof" of contemporary reservation life.

Yet, despite its flaws, there are some aspects of the novel that ring true and are plausible as real lived experience. The dilemmas of being an Indian on the reservation are many; take for example the assessment of assimilation and amalgamation in contemporary native societies:

Those quarter-blood and eighth-blood grandchildren will find out they're Indian and torment the rest of us real Indians. They'll come to our powwows, in their nice clothes and nice cars and remind us how much we don't have. Those quarter-bloods and eighth-bloods will get all the Indian jobs, all the Indian chances, because they look white. Because they're safer. [Italics, mine] (283)

The distance from tribal memories and bonds does have its perceived rewards both monetarily and psychically.2 Alexie's narrator, however, doesn't appear to recognize that the representations of Indian he presents to a non-native audiences are also "safer," because they are dressed in America's favorite subjects when it comes to Indians: tragedy and despair. In denying Indians a full-fledged humanity and in presenting only superficial markers for the representations of Indian, he ends up with the only other acceptable possibility (for mainstream readers): the drunken Indian.

The portrayal of alcoholism that has been rampant through the generations cannot be denied and presents a paradox with which native writers must grapple. The pathetic city drunks, and the pitiful alcoholic parents of the Warm Water sisters, Junior, Thomas, and Victor ring like wake-up calls to the social problems facing Indian people. Yet, the representation of alcoholism in Reservation Blues, however accurate, still capitalizes upon the stereotypical image of the "drunken Indian". It's not the kind of 'mirroring,' portraying colonial impact, that non-native people want to accept - and is a sore subject for Indians because it is all too familiar for most of us. This is the dilemma for not only Alexie, but native writers in general: to accurately represent our communities without exploiting them. The buffer in Reservation Blues is to sugarcoat the picture with enough side-tracks and comic scenes to tone down the real issues. Despite the verisimilitude of Alexie's portrayal of alcoholism and its impact upon individual lives, he does not attempt to put the social problems of economic instability, poverty, or cultural oppression into perspective. Instead, alcoholism and drinking are sensationalized: Lester is "the most accomplished drunk on the Spokane Reservation" (151), a notoriety that wins him "tribal hero" (151) status. Victor, incapable of coping with rejection, turns to the bottle for solace, the tragic failed artist.

Victor's demise brings to mind a comment from Paula Gunn Allen, who in The Sacred Hoop has said that, "conflict-based plots require a tragic outcome if the relationships between Indian and white are represented with historical accuracy" ( 1986), an idea, by the way I do not want to support, but which seems an accurate assessment of much recent native literary output. Not all of the characters in Reservation Blues are tragic though. Robert Johnson, the stranger to the reservation who comes for redemption, finds it, at the expense of both Victor and Junior.

Betty and Veronica, Beaver and Wally, the American Werewolf and Billy Jack, Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix, Marvin Gaye and Robert Johnson, along with the ingredients borrowed from many native cultures, all contribute to the cut-and-paste of Reservation Blues. In the end, I am reminded again of Spike Lee, African American film-maker, who I want to cheer for being able to create movies about African Americans that star African American actors. What is missing from his films, and from Reservation Blues, is a sense of responsibility to the cultures they are attempting to represent. Reservation Blues is fiction that relies on the strategies of film. It is more specifically a product, and reflection, of the techno-generation, clever at times, but not the serious literature it's cracked up to be. To derive meaning from the novel for the native audience is to become lost in its ambiguity of purpose, its terminal dysfunction as a native novel. But then, it's quite possible that we're re not supposed to think about it all that hard.

[A condensed version of this review appeared in Indian Artist.]


1 After contact, this practice was continued with runaway slaves and captured whites. In the case of the Spokane, it is documented in the tribal records that a number of white families were adopted into the tribe.

2 Compare, for instance, Sidner Larson's autobiographical Catch Colt, to the pain inflicted through bigotry as experienced by Janet Campbell-Hale in her autobiography Bloodlines: Odyssey of a Native Daughter.


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Reprinted with permission from The Wicazo Sa Review.

© 1995 Gloria Bird