Following the intermittently engaging but somewhat odd assortment of stories and poems that made up his “War Dances” (2009), Sherman Alexie once again reasserts himself as one the most compelling contemporary practitioners of the short story. In “Blasphemy,” a collection of new and published stories, the author demonstrates his talent on nearly every page.
These are deceptively simple, swift-moving stories awash with characters in the thrall of various sins and existential quandaries. Alexie deftly administers near equal doses of pathos and humor, providing such smooth entertainment that some readers may glide over his empathetic treatment of such themes as racism, identity, family, loyalty, and ceremony.
A host of Alexie classics — “The Toughest Indian in the World,” “War Dances,” and “This Is What It Means to Say Phoenix, Arizona” — sit alongside newer gems like “Midnight Basketball,” “Scenes From a Life,” and “Faith.”
As always, Alexie’s voice is finely tuned to the complexities of racism and self-awareness. Though he mostly explores the experiences of Native Americans — and often in a wry and not always positive light (“There it was, the central dilemma of his warrior life: repetitive stress. In his day, Crazy Horse had to worry about Custer and the patriotic sociopaths of the Seventh Cavalry”) — his insights are more universally applicable.
Although several of the shorter stories sputter, it’s not just the longer pieces that stand out. Perhaps the most memorable story in the collection is “Salt,” a relatively brief tale of an intern at a small newspaper who is assigned to take obituary information from a 90-something widow who has recently lost her husband and beloved cat. Alexie’s quick wit (the narrator describes his boss as “a bucket of pizza and beer tied to a broomstick”) belies a heartbreaking examination of loss and the varying ways in which we cope with the unyielding cycle of life and death.
Among the longer stories, “Whatever Happened to Frank Snake Church?” shows the author at his best. Alexie’s beloved sport of basketball provides the impetus, as the once-great Frank Snake Church attempts to relive his former glory on the court, which he accomplishes at least temporarily: “On the basketball courts of Seattle, Frank was the love child of Sasquatch and D.B. Cooper; he was the murder of Charles Lindbergh’s baby, the building of Noah’s Ark, and the flooding of Atlantis; he was the mystery and the religion and the outright lies.” But basketball is only a piece of Frank’s larger search for authenticity, for the kind of life that both honors his parents and ancestors and also serves as memorable in its own right. “All along,” writes Alexie, “Frank understood that he was suffering from a quiet sickness, a sort of emotional tumor that never grew or diminished but prevented him from living a full and messy life.”
The pace of the stories, in addition to the unexpected narrative turns and blunt declarations about often-taboo topics (most obviously, sex) will appeal to fans of Junot Diaz, George Saunders, and other similar writers, and readers new to Alexie will find this enriching collection to be the perfect introduction to a formidable literary voice.
The protagonist in “Breaking and Entering,” another classic Alexie story, may claim that “[l]ife is infinitesimal and incremental and inconsequential,” but it’s a sentiment clearly not shared by the author, who illuminates the lives of his characters in unique, surprising and, ultimately, hopeful ways.
Eric Liebetrau is the managing editor and nonfiction editor of Kirkus Reviews. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.