War Dances by Sherman Alexie

Sherman Alexie is one of my favorite authors. I’d read his grocery list. So when I saw War Dances in the bookstore, of course I bought it. I’ve had it for a couple of weeks now, and finally picked it up to read at a time when I was in need of serious distraction.

Let me start by saying that Alexie is writing at a level most authors only dream about reaching. When I offer a criticism, I’m still talking about levels of good.

I’d need a week at least to put together the kind of review this book deserves and I’d have to read through it two or three more times — which I will do, I’m quite certain (the reading, not the review). But I don’t have a week, so you get this one draft review.

When I was in grad school and reading Faulkner, Roth and the like, I kept wondering to myself who, today, is the future canon? The writer who just keeps getting better and better until you start to get chills. I’ve been hard pressed to come up with a name. So many of the literary writers today feel so self-aware and stultifyingly precious that, to be honest, I don’t give a hoot. Really.

If he keeps writing like this, and there’s no reason to believe he won’t, if there’s any justice in the world, Alexie is that writer.

I thought War Dances started off good but not Great. I read one of the pieces in substantially, but not exactly, the same form The New Yorker (here, the title story War Dances) It’s at this point that the collection really pulled me in. As I progressed through the poems and stories, I start taking in the themes and questions Alexie leaves us to face — the various narrators’ interior lives are fundamentally different from the culturally dominant worldview. We are constantly shown that maybe we don’t understand quite enough.

The poem On Airplanes was the first one to make me say, oh. at the end. From that point forward the stories and poems were transformative. Ode to Pay Phones made my breath catch. Ode to Mix Tapes is in a similar class. The story Fearful Symmetry is Alexie at his “turn you around” best. Where you start this story and where you are when it ends are two different worlds, and in between Alexie puts you through a transformation. The last story Salt and the final poem Food Chain were wonderful and so very lovely.

If you love writing, if you’re in love with words, if you just want to say you read a great writer before he was writ large, read War Dances

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2 Responses to “War Dances by Sherman Alexie”

  1. Rosie says:

    Wow, that's a serious endorsement, but now you've gone and made me curious.

  2. Susan/DC says:

    Sherman Alexie spoke at my son's high school. His style is discursive — he started five or so different stories, but over the course of the 90 minutes he wove them into a coherent whole with a marvelous cast of characters (including his father, Oprah Winfrey, and the actress Irene Bedard). He was funny, poignant, and smart as could be. My non-reader of a son was completely impressed and I, a constant reader, immediately went out and bought several of his books.