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Finding the father within

A collection of stories and poems explores the terrain of alienation, for people of every tribe.

War Dances
nolead ends nolead begins By Sherman Alexie

Grove Press. 256 pp. $23

nolead ends nolead begins

Reviewed by Elizabeth Mosier

'I grew up in that space between my father's enormous potential and everything he did not accomplish," Sherman Alexie, who bears the name engraved on his father's tombstone, has said.

The acclaimed writer of poems, stories, screenplays, and novels may feel that gap personally, as audience expectation, after receiving the National Book Award for Young People's Literature for The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian. But Alexie makes an art of resisting expectation; questioning the status quo seems to be his literary and personal survival strategy. Though his latest work, War Dances, may be drawn from the same wellspring as The Absolutely True Diary, a coming-of-age tale, this slim, yet powerful and perfectly ordered collection of stories and poems is a different kind of journey through unfamiliar territory - one that seeks to understand the causes of modern men's alienation, whatever tribe they've wandered from or tried to claim.

"I miss him, the drunk bastard," Alexie laments in the title story, structured as a series of numbered and subtitled parts. His narrative logic is associative, beginning with a stowaway cockroach ("My Kafka Baggage") discovered in his luggage, tracing his sudden hearing loss to his father's decline ("Blankets"), and finally annotating the version of his father he's preserved in a poem ("Exit Interview for My Father").

In "Blankets," he depicts his father, a diabetic alcoholic, in the hospital after surgical amputation of half of one foot and three toes of the other. "There was no privacy, not even a thin curtain," he writes. "I guessed it made it easier for the nurses to monitor the postsurgical patients, but still, my father was exposed - his decades of poor health and worse decisions illuminated - on white sheets in a white hallway under white lights." It's a devastating image, one that resonates ("Valediction") with the burning light his father sees, on his deathbed, as "God passing judgment on Earth."

Even as Alexie relates his own worsening symptoms (he fears a malignant tumor or the return of the hydrocephalus that nearly killed him in infancy), he combats the reader's illusions about death, healing, and Native Americans by exposing his story's scaffolding: the joints and ties of his father's and grandfather's lives, which support the weight of his own. He dares us to laugh at the "Indian world filled with charlatans, men and women who pretended - hell, who might have come to believe - they were holy,", including an Indian grandfather "waving eagle feathers around" a newborn at an improvised naming ceremony, and "the Sioux writer and scholar and charlatan" orating on sovereignty and literature.

Like his father, whose "vodka straight up with a nostalgia chaser" brought him to the long passage of the hospital's "recovery hallway," these people are killing themselves by clinging to false idols. Alexie arms himself with ironic humor, which, in this story and throughout his work, allows him to survive. Asked to sing a healing song with his father, he knows the song will not defeat death - or even stop his father from "drinking a bottle of vodka as soon as he could sit up in bed." He sings it anyway, as the remote black nurse on duty moves closer to the dying man and sighs and smiles, marveling "at the infinite and ridiculous faith of other people."

"I knew what she was thinking," writes Alexie, who assumes the nurse's stance in stories about an adulterous husband, an idealistic and paternalistic film editor, a teenage obituary writer, an insensibly violent senator's son. As in this excerpt from "After Building the Lego Star Wars Ultimate Death Star," his poetry introduces, illuminates, and subverts the ideas he has dramatized, preserving legends he has dismissed:

My sons, when I was a boy, I threw dirt clods

And snow grenades stuffed with hidden rocks, and fought

Enemies - other Indian boys - who thought,

Like me, that joyful war turned us into gods.

Read as autobiography, War Dances is a darkly humorous and heartbreaking ceremonial dance begun by the chief and performed after his death by his warrior son. Sherman Alexie searches for his long-absent father in ordinary men - and finally finds him in himself.