In ‘Indian Killer’, Sherman Alexie’s second novel, two members of the Anthropology Department at the University of Washington in Seattle exchange banalities in a parking lot:
‘Dr Mather!’ said the white man as he approached. ‘Dr Mather, it’s me. It’s Dr Faulkner.’
‘Good evening, Dr Faulkner. How are you?’
‘Fine, fine. How was your class?’
‘Well, I’m having trouble with a student. An Indian student, actually. She is very disruptive.’
This is not an exchange that I can imagine taking place in any car park on any American campus, where secretaries routinely address university presidents by their first names. Either Alexei doesn’t know what he’s writing about, or this is meant to demonstrate the pomposity of male Caucasians, academics especially. I would like to think that his intentions were entirely satirical, but in its stiffness the passage too closely resembles the rest of the book’s dialogue for me to tell; not even the speech of that obstreperous Indian student, Marie Polatkin, has any degree of flexibility. And while satire can make you wonder about a writer’s attitude, it isn’t supposed to make you question his competence.
In the biographical note to his first novel, Reservation Blues, Alexie identifies himself as a ‘Spokane/Coeur d’Alene Indian’, a product of two tribes in the Pacific Northwest. Since Indian Killer gives a rough time both to those white characters who claim to know about Indians and to what Marie calls ‘pretend Indians ... mixed bloods’, it’s best to get Alexie’s pedigree out front. Born in 1966, he has already published several volumes of poems along with these three books of fiction. He has won prizes and received substantial reviews; his books come with enticing blurbs, and not only from other writers. He figures on Granta’s list of the ‘Twenty Best Young American Novelists’.
The Spokanes were ‘a salmon tribe before they put those dams on the river’, fisherfolk living in settled villages. Most of Alexie’s work is set on their reservation in eastern Washington State, and what’s most alive in that work is his unillusioned and often comic portrait of reservation life. Some of this serves as a rebuke to white naivety; in Reservation Blues, for instance, a congregation laughs at the paleface priest Father Arnold for having expected to see ‘tipis and buffalo’. That’s just ‘those dang Sioux Indians,’ one of his flock tells him. ‘Those Sioux always get to be on television. They get everything.’ Alexie’s characters know more about basketball and Hollywood, heavy metal and Hank Williams, than they do about buffalo. His young men might believe that they’re supposed to be warriors, but most of them know that’s a hopeless fantasy. Instead they are unemployed, or in prison, or alcoholic, or driving a truck.
Alexie’s first novel and the stories collected in The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven draw on a common stock of characters: Lester FallsApart, whose name suggests his role as ‘the most accomplished drunk’ in the entire Spokane nation; Thomas Builds-the-Fire, a teetotaler and the tribal storyteller, but a young man to whom nobody much wants to listen; and Victor Joseph, who doesn’t want to call a Spokane rock band ‘Coyote Spring’ because it sounds ‘too damn Indian’. Of these Victor seems to be the most important, the one for whom Alexie imagines a life-history. He is a small scared child in the collection’s first stories, the product of his ‘father’s whiskey sperm [and] mother’s vodka egg’: by the end of the book he’s become a drunk himself and, in Reservation Blues, one of ‘the most accomplished bullies of recent Native American history’. Those who move off the reservation don’t seem to make it either, winding up as convenience store clerks or in the Seattle streets, sleeping it off under the highway with the other ‘urban Indians’ who can’t make their way home. But though their landscape is bleak, these first two books share a kind of warmhearted, comic brutality. ‘Your father was always half crazy,’ Victor’s mother tells him. ‘And the other half was on medication.’
Reservation Blues opens with the appearance on the Spokane reservation of a thin old black man who calls himself Robert Johnson – presumably the great Thirties bluesman, long dead in the world outside Alexei’s fiction. Here he’s in flight from someone called ‘The Gentleman’, with whom he has done a deal that would make him the best guitar-player the world had ever seen. But now, afraid to play lest The Gentleman hear, he surrenders his guitar, an ‘axe’ so hot that it sizzles and sparks, so sharp that its strings cut your fingers, to Thomas Builds-the-Fire. That’s the start of Coyote Springs, a ‘garage band’ from a place where nobody has a garage, a band born to play the ‘sad notes of the reservation blues’.
For much of the time, as the group plays its way across the West and begins to dream of a recording contract, Alexie succeeds in making the novel itself feel like a garage band’s performance: ragged and agreeable, digressive, picaresque, and as prolix as any drum solo. Reading it, I’m reminded of the anti-perfectionism of Seattle grunge, the belief that finish and form get in the way of an act’s authenticity. The result is a narrative with a loose and likeable inconse-quentiality, a book that reads as if you’re supposed to enjoy each riff as it comes without worrying about the way things hang together.
Still, a book isn’t a rock concert, and when I read I’m generally sober enough to care about the missed notes. So it bothers me that a character is described as enjoying Tom Clancy novels during a scene set a dozen years or more before the publication of The Hunt for Red October. It bothers me, too, that the reverb from his characters’ thoughts often screeches through Alexie’s omniscient narration, in a way that can make him sound preachy. And though it’s not unusual for an episodic work to pop a string or two near the end, Reservation Blues really struggles in the set’s last songs. Alexie makes one of his characters commit suicide, but he can’t manage the necessary tonal shift out of what has largely been a comic novel; it’s as if Rod Stewart were to try on Die Winterreise.
Indian Killer is in every sense a bigger book than its predecessors: longer and yet tighter in structure, far more ambitious and far less good-humoured. The novel’s initial premise suggests a powerful literary thriller. In Seattle a white man is found stabbed and scalped. Soon a child and a college student disappear, both white, male and presumed murdered by a figure whom a conservative talk-radio host, Truck Schultz, dubs the ‘Indian Killer’. There is, however, no real evidence that the killer is an Indian, and most of the ‘Skins’ who gather at Big Heart’s Soda and Juice Bar dismiss Schultz’s tale as ‘racist paranoia’. Instead they worry about backlash, about the pack of young whites who’ve started taking baseball bats to any Indian they can find. At the same time, many of Seattle’s Indians, though they will admit that the murders are horrible, feel ‘a strange combination of relief and fear, as if an apocalyptic prophecy was just starting to come true’. ‘We all are ... keeping score,’ one character says, adding that there’s ‘a long ways to go’ in what they can only see as payback, as revenge for the smallpox and the bayonets and the missionaries, for all the killers of Indians who fill the American past.
In its opening pages Indian Killer looks as though it might live up to its premise. ‘The sheets are dirty. An Indian Health Service hospital in the late Sixties. On this reservation or that reservation. Any reservation, a particular reservation.’ Cut to a delivery room, a nameless teenager in labour, a nurse who quickly ‘washes away the blood, the remains of the placenta, the evidence’ – the evidence that this ever happened. For the girl has agreed to adoption: the baby is given to the Smiths of Seattle. They name him John, a choice that Alexie uses to signal a well-meaning lack of imagination, and when John Smith grows up, Indian-born but raised by whites, he will become the chief suspect in the search for the Indian Killer. It’s not an unreasonable assumption: John has heard a ‘noise in his head’ since he was ten, and though as a teenager he seems ‘a successfully integrated Indian boy’, he is always fighting ‘against his anger’, biting his tongue and lips until they bleed. At times he tries to imagine life with his biological mother – but on which reservation? He doesn’t even know what tribe he’s from. He thinks constantly about his childhood mentor Father Duncan, ‘the only Indian Jesuit in the Pacific North-West’, and someone who couldn’t, in the end, hold those two identities together – a suicide. Now at 27, supposedly under medical supervision but refusing to take his pills, John hears the voices again, and this time they tell him what to do: ‘John needed to kill a white man.’
A choppy prose evokes John’s inner landscape: ‘The heat and noise in his head were loud and painful. He wanted to run. He even started to run. But he stopped. He could not run. Everybody would notice. Everybody would know that he was thinking about killing white men.’ The rhythm is no doubt meant to convey John’s confused attempt at rationality, but not only is it monotonous, it carries over into Alexie’s handling of other characters. Take the white mystery-writer, Jack Wilson: ‘Wilson thought about the Indian Killer. A white man scalped. A white man disappeared, a white boy kidnapped. It was Biblical, David v. Goliath. But Wilson was disturbed by that.’ It’s a way of writing that recalls the staccato beat of three-dot journalism, and Alexie’s reliance on it suggests that he is trying to put everything simply and clearly, so that readers don’t make the kinds of mistake about Indians that Wilson does. An ex-cop whose Indian detective-hero is called ‘Aristotle Little Hawk’, Wilson can’t quite understand that ‘white people who pretend to be Indians are gently teased, ignored, plainly ridiculed, or beaten, depending on their degree of whiteness.’
I’m not certain just what ‘degree of whiteness’ means – but never mind. Alexie’s omniscient narrator seems in that last quotation merely to report a fact, and yet the voice also carries a note of approval, a note that in the end makes Indian Killer an ugly book. Wilson isn’t only a ‘Wannabe Indian’, he was also a bed-wetter into his teens, someone who sopped the sheets in one foster home after another. One of the killer’s victims, ‘Edward Letterman ... Short, overweight and white’, gets it just after visiting a porno shop. ‘White boys in general’ are given to speculating about the sexual habits of each others’ mothers, while forceful white fathers, called things like ‘Bird’ and ‘Buck’, tend to beat their children. Truck Schultz mouths off on air because as a boy he was too much of a wimp to kill a deer. As for Dr Clarence Mather, who teaches a course called Introduction to Native American Literature – well, Marie Polatkin only has to see his syllabus to know he’s ‘full of shit’. The only white character to have the author’s approval is a man bound to a wheelchair. The only Indian character who doesn’t have it is half-white.
What Alexie does in Indian Killer is imagine a set of white characters who deserve to die, though not all of them do die. They deserve to die because the author holds them in contempt and wants us to do so as well. He uses their violence and bluster and even their bed-wetting, their individual vices and failings, to make that contempt seem justified, but at bottom it is racially driven. They are contemptible because they are white.
In the crude essentialism with which it depicts its characters Indian Killer stands virtually alone in reputably published recent American fiction. It’s easy to tell that Marie Polatkin is Good, the very model of an activist Indian: she not only spends all her time handing out sandwiches to the homeless, she’s also full-blooded. This is a clumsy book as well as a nasty one. It is too long by a third, and marred by sausage-fingered shifts in point of view (even if some of its reflections offer a perverse kind of pleasure: ‘ “The Indians won again!” shouted King, forgetting that Indians had never won anything in the first place’). We’re told that Norway’s landscape is ‘monotonously flat’; that ‘the killer, like a Christian plague, had swept into the Jones house and stolen the first-born son of a white family’; that a ‘ragtag bunch of homeless’ Indians are ‘weak from malnutrition and various diseases’. Well, which ones, exactly? Trichinosis? Beriberi? Finally there’s not much fun in listening to such lazily misplucked chords.
Anyone who has questioned the process by which Granta produced its list of the ‘Twenty Best Young American Novelists’ will find grounds for their scepticism here. But the sloppiness that mars Indian Killer was already present in Reservation Blues. So, too, was a sardonic hostility towards white society, in the form of two record producers named after 19th-century Indian fighters: George Wright and Phil ‘the only good Indian is a dead Indian’ Sheridan. Alexie’s first books were at times reckless with detail but they were also energetic portrayals of a largely unfamiliar culture; and racial antagonism was only one aspect of his depiction of reservation life. Indian Killer is bombastic, and its racial hostility structural – not only the novel’s subject but its motivating passion. This isn’t a simple case of preferring the earlier, more modest work: it’s that Indian Killer’s flaws make those of its predecessors more apparent.