‘You Don’t Have To Say You Love Me’’ is a fierce howl of pain and a dark hymn to Sherman Alexie’s immensely difficult, indomitable mother. In 160 numbered and titled sections — some prose, many poems — Alexie explores his complicated relationship with his mother from multiple angles, with various approaches, in a panoply of modes and tones.
Alexie grew up poor on the Spokane Indian Reservation in Wellpinit, Wash., in a “wooden improvisation” of a HUD house, with alcoholic parents. Born with hydrocephalus, he had two brain surgeries by the time he was two, was a severely anxious child, prone to seizures and “haunted by nightmares” and afflicted with the symptoms of what would later be diagnosed as bipolar disorder.
In the 1970s, the reservation was lawless, frightening,rife with sexual abuse, Indian-on-Indian racism, and cruel white teachers who tortured their students. At one dangerous holiday party hosted by his parents, two murderers and many sexual predators (some with specific preferences and others less discriminating) were in attendance. Fights broke out; shots were fired; blood flowed. Alexie’s father passed out drunk.
His father, “shy and gentle,” kind and loving, never made an enemy. His mother, by contrast, was volatile and abrasive. But after that terrifying dinner party, she made a vow to her children that she would never drink again:
“My mother was a liar. She broke many promises over the coming decades. But she kept that greatest of vows. She was sober for the rest of her life.
“And that’s why I am still alive.’’
Alexie never doubted his father’s love for him, but he couldn’t count on an “unreliable” drunk to hold the family together. His mother, though explosive, was “dependable.” Beautiful, garrulous, tiny of stature but with a huge personality, Lillian Alexie “crafted legendary quilts and was one of the last fluent speakers of our tribal language.” She also “taught [her children] . . . survival.” Lillian died of Parkinson’s disease and lung cancer in 2015, propelling the son from whom she’d often been estranged into a reckoning with what she meant to him.
Alexie is fascinated and tormented by the paradoxes of his mother and his feelings about her. She “publicly rebuked and shamed” her children, told “spectacular lies,’’ was “mean and foul-mouthed.” She was “an undiagnosed bipolar grandiose fabulist.” But she was also a charismatic storyteller, a gifted artist, a force of nature too powerful and compelling to be resisted.
In these pages, Lillian by turns inhibits and frees her son, judges him and reveres him, harms him and rescues him, terrifies and enchants him. She is at once his most formidable adversary and his fiercest advocate.
And if Lillian “was a contradictory person . . . all by herself, an entire tribe of contradictions,” so is the son who admittedly resembles her: in his bipolar exuberance and fits of anger, in his status as “talented liar” and “unreliable narrator,” in his sheer vitality and force of personality. Does Alexie contradict himself? Here, he dismisses guilt; there, he wallows in it. “My mother and I loved each other,” he states flatly early on. Later, he poignantly acknowledges: “I don’t know if/ I loved my mother./ I don’t know/ If she loved me.’’
Like Lillian with her children, Alexie can exhaust us with his intensity, his inability to be pinned down, and his loquacious repetitiveness. But with his self-lacerating wit, his reckless candor, his gusto, he woos us back again and again. He swims in self-theatricality as his slippery medium; he is large; he contains multitudes. The Whitmanian appeal of his performance is wholly self-conscious — and largely winning.
These pages are scored by resentment, hurt, guilt, anger, fear, but they are also full of gratitude, admiration, and tenderness. In one especially moving section, Alexie asks his mother a series of empathetic questions, concluding: “Dear Mother, were you broken in the same places where I am broken, too?” In one way, it’s direct as can be. But one also feels a readerly response that the book properly provokes: Would it add to understanding to hear an answer yes or no?
Alexie makes it clear that this will not be an exhaustive account of his mother’s life: “There are family mysteries I cannot solve. There are family mysteries I am unwilling to solve.” Grappling with ambivalent feelings, unwilling to redeem his mother’s life with sentimentality, Alexie chooses what Keats would call negative capability. Mystery, paradox, the currency of counterfeit secrets: The drama of not knowing is what we are left with in this searching, concealing, by turns hilarious and wrenching, vibrantly alive book.
YOU DON’T HAVE
TO SAY YOU LOVE ME
By Sherman Alexie
Little Brown, 457 pp., $28
Priscilla Gilman is a former professor of English literature at Yale University and Vassar College and the author of “The Anti-Romantic Child: A Memoir of Unexpected Joy.’’