WAR DANCES by Sherman Alexie

Book Quote:

“She’s gone. She’s gone.” Paul sang the chorus of that Hall & Oates song. He sang without irony, for he was a twenty-first-century American who’d been taught to mourn his small and large losses by singing Top 40 hits.

Book Review:

Review by Debbie Lee Wesslemann (FEB 25, 2010)

War Dances, Sherman Alexie’s collage of short stories and narrative and prose poems, covers familiar Alexie territory: the melancholy comedy of ordinary lives, where irony and coincidence strike like rattlesnakes, swiftly and unexpectedly. His characters, often but not always of Native American descent, grapple with a changing culture and their place in it. They journey toward the ideal but end up, more or less, in a place no better than where they began. And although the sons pay for the sins of their fathers, the fathers suffer, too. Redemption comes when least expected, and the best intentions sour. Alexie is both cynic and comedian, toying with his characters and their impossible circumstances, rarely willing to bestow upon them the good fortune of an unequivocal happy ending.

In “The Senator’s Son,” the narrator commits an impulsive hate crime that leaves him questioning his moral fiber: on a dark street, outside a bar, he and his friends attack some gay men, one of whom turns out to be the narrator’s best friend from childhood, Jeremy. But the narrator is less worried about his friend than about what he may have done to his father, a senator with presidential aspirations: “The real question is this: Why the hell would I risk my reputation and future and my father’s political career – the entire meaning of his life – for a street fight – for a gay bashing? I don’t know, but it was high comedy.” The narrator’s remorse is rooted in the knowledge that he cannot compete with his father’s “predictable moral code,” even though his father’s actions and political beliefs may be the germs at the heart of the crime. But nothing that night ends up as the narrator expects, with both his father and Jeremy act on the strange nuances of their convictions.

In the wry, often hilarious, “The Ballad of Paul Nonetheless,” the protagonist, Paul, is a vintage clothing dealer who travels throughout the country in search of acquisitions. He is a man who lives – and wears – cultural history, from old films and jazz to pop hits and eBay. At O’Hare, he sees a beautiful woman wearing “a pair of glorious red shoes. Pumas. Paul knew those shoes. He’d seen them in an ad in a fashion magazine, or maybe on an Internet site, and fallen in love with them . . . Who knew that Paul would someday see those shoes on a woman’s feet and feel compelled to pursue her?” And so he races after the woman with a pop soundtrack playing in his head – or rather, on his iPod – and wearing a suit Gene Kelly once owned. When he finally corners her just outside the security exit, they share a brief, witty conversation, leaving him to marvel “at the gifts of strangers, at the way in which a five-minute relationship can be as gratifying and complete (and sexless!) as a thirteen-year marriage.” Because this is an Alexie story and not the law of averages, Paul runs into the woman again, in a different airport. She becomes a metaphor for his own crumbling marriage, his increasing loneliness, and, eventually, his downfall.

Alexie is best when he crafts longer short fiction, stories like the two mentioned above and the poignant “Breaking and Entering” where a man defends his home and ends up as the poster boy for racism. The more experimental but equally effective “War Dances” delivers a series of vignettes and witty observations as it tells the story of a man who goes suddenly deaf in one ear when his wife is out of the country, in Italy. He faces the possibility of his own mortality through remembering his father. However, despite Alexie’s skill with longer forms, certain shorter works stand out as well, and in these Alexie seems conscious of the connection between poetry and prose, as he titles one particularly successful piece “Roman Catholic Haiku.” A short piece written in a similar vein, “Catechism,” uses the format of questions and answers to reveal faith of a different kind, but is less successful. In the last, the prose has Haiku-like beauty without the resonance.

Likewise, the poetry is uneven. The wonderful “Ode to Mix Tapes” mourns the loss of tradition to new and easier technology in a world of point-and-click: “A great mix tape/Was sculpture designed to seduce/And let the hounds loose./A great mix tape was a three-chord parade/Led by the first song, something bold and brave . . . .” But the opening poem, “The Limited,” is slight and heavy-handed. The lines in his poetry are often quotable, succinct messages and images. In “Ode to Small-Town Sweethearts,” the teenage narrator braves a storm “for a girl” and ends up among friends, thinking “Mortals have always fought the gods/And drives epic storms for love and/or lust,/So don’t be afraid to speak honestly.”

Because of the unevenness and the mix of poetry and prose, War Dances often feels thin, without much between the covers; however, when the stories work, they evoke the pleasures of the author’s award-winning short story, “What You Pawn I Will Redeem,” and for those moments, this volume is well-worth the read.

Editor’s Note: War Dances is the winner of the  2010 PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction.

AMAZON READER RATING: from 26 readers
PUBLISHER: Grove Press; First Edition edition (October 6, 2009)
REVIEWER: Debbie Lee Wesselmann
AUTHOR WEBSITE: Sherman Alexie
EXTRAS: Excerpt
MORE ON MOSTLYFICTION: More Native American fiction:

Partial Bibliography (excludes poetry books):


February 25, 2010 · Judi Clark · No Comments
Tags:  · Posted in: 2010 Favorites, Pen Faulkner, Short Stories, Wild West, y Award Winning Author

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