September 2012

Walter Biggins

fiction

Blasphemy: New and Selected Stories by Sherman Alexie

In "What Ever Happened to Frank Snake Church?" a short story from Sherman Alexie's Blasphemy, Frank remembers the way his mom and dad say "I love you" to each other. In long-term relationships, it's often hard to say those words directly. In some ways, the longer the relationship, the harder it is. But it gets said, and Alexie captures it:

"Can't you ever leave that ball at home?" Helen asked Harrison. She always asked him that question. After so many years of hard-worked marriage, that question had come to mean I love you, but your obsessions irritate the hell out of me, but I love you, remember that, okay?

On that day, Frank was eleven years old, young enough to sit on his mother's lap and be only slightly embarrassed by their shared affection, and old enough to need his father and be completely unable to tell him about that need.

"Let's play ball," Frank said to Harrison, though he meant to say, Prove your love for me.

 Reading that passage, I thought, I've been here before.

Indeed, I had, for the difficulties of family members loving each other openly is a deep problem, in Alexie's work and in all our lives. Specifically, I'd read a version of this exchange in "Net Profit," a 2006 essay Alexie wrote for The Stranger. As with his stories, Alexie's essays ramble rapidly from point to point, switching direction, tone and focus -- often in a single paragraph -- until you realize that they're capturing lifetimes of disappointment, anguish, love, and heartache in a short space. "Net Profit" is arguably a defense of Alexie's beloved Seattle Supersonics, specifically for the basketball franchise remaining in the city instead of relocating to Oklahoma City. (He even testified against the move in court. He lost. The Sonics became the Thunder.) Mounting his defense, Alexie weaves in the following: awkward visits to Starbucks (the founder of which owned, and sold, the Sonics), rating his quality as a writer, the ways in which families pass on traditions, how Ray Allen is the Emily Dickinson of the jump shot (no, really), and this passage:

While my father was dying, he and I talked basketball. Three days before he died, my father still had enough will and character left to deride Kobe Bryant for being a rotten smallpox wound on the game of basketball.

"I know," I said. "I can't stand him."

That meant I love you, Dad.

"I still can't believe they traded Shaq instead of Kobe."

That meant I love you, too, Son...

When I look back at my relationship with my father, when I put a narrative to it, I realize that every plot point, every surprise, and every tender and/or painful moment has something to do with basketball.

Blasphemy's stories, fifteen classics from previous collections and sixteen new ones, bighearted and darkly funny and side-splitting and tragic and anxious, evoke memory and love, and how they get conflated and confused. By veering in new directions every few pages, by undercutting misery with a well-placed joke, Alexie's prose grabs your heart and your brain and shakes loose the spot dividing the two. Each story, from the novellas ("The Search Engine," "Indian Country," "What You Pawn I Will Redeem," "What Ever Happened to Frank Snake Church?") to the flash fictions ("Idolatry," "Fame," "Breakfast," "Protest"), attempts to embrace the arc of a life, or several lives. In doing so, with sudden shifts and odd juxtapositions of tone and people, Alexie forces us to confront life's anxieties in a way that more polite, less rambunctious fiction fails to do. Alexie swings for the fences.

Or, to be more accurate, he shoots the three-pointers, rather than the easy layups and the finger rolls. The prevalence of basketball -- as a game, a form of familial bonding, a source for tall tales and myths -- makes it a form of religion in this collection. In that sense, Blasphemy is a perfect title, for Alexie and his characters worship basketball more than any god or spirit out there.

All Americans, Blasphemy argues, practice some religion. Those religions, though, rarely get codified by gospels and theological texts. They're even more rarely found in churches or temples or synagogues, and hardly at all get explicated in divinity schools, at least not to our satisfaction. If a religion is a code of ethics built on a perhaps irrational faith in a higher power, then most Americans treat capitalism, "freedom," exceptionalism, and sport -- in Alexie's case, basketball -- as their true altars.

Alexie, as I've written, believes hard in the latter. The first three, though, come under sharp fire. A Spokane and Coeur d'Alene Indian from Washington State, Alexie wisely and knowingly casts a cockeyed glance at the American Dreams of individualism and meritocracy. Even though he and most of his characters veer leftish politically, he punctures balloons whenever he notices the American narrative being full of hot air instead of lived experience. In "Midnight Basketball," two Indians discuss Barack Obama in a diner. Ed is convinced, from watching YouTube videos and seeing a famous New York Times photograph, that the president is a baller. Joey smacks that shit down:

"Come on, Ed. I like Obama. I voted for him. I'm a damn commie bastard. But you don't want to play basketball like him."

"Have you seen the videos? That one where he dribble-drives through a bunch of guys."

"Those are Secret Service dudes he's running with. They'd take a bullet for him. They're not supposed to stop him; they're trained to stop other people from getting to him." ...

"Well, he's scoring in that video."

"That guy wasn't guarding him. Obama is POTUS. He is mother-effing POTUS. And even if he wasn't POTUS, Obama still had that ball hanging out so far that anybody could have blocked it. You could have blocked it, Ed. That shit was as weak as the public option in health care. If Obama pulled that on me, I'd block it like some racist-ass redneck senator from Alabama."

Alexie's dialogue shines. Talk -- and there's a lot of it in Blasphemy -- is currency in Alexie's world. Conversation reveals the characters' truest selves. Even his expository prose -- blunt, casual, darkly funny, emphasizing gesture and tone rather than physical description and place (usually Seattle or Spokane) -- feels like extended riffs from a good comedian. The collection features a wide range of protagonists -- white, black, Indian, male, female, straight, gay, old, and young -- but they all have two things in common. They're good talkers, and they're funny.

Laughter, though, can get them into trouble, especially when it's used to deflect pain and avoid painful truths. In "The Approximate Size of My Favorite Tumor," a man's constant joking and inability to be serious, even about his terminal cancer, causes his wife to flee. In "War Dances," the narrator tries to cut through his father's last days and his own potential tumor with dry wit, but finds, ultimately, that tears and his wife's embrace work better.

A wife's embrace emphasizes another notable subject -- perhaps another religion to which Alexie adheres -- in this collection: marriage. Just as father-and-son love seeps into his writing, so do the trials and quiet joys of marriage. Marriage weathers storms -- infidelities, miscommunications, years of resentment, nagging rituals, sexless voids -- in Blasphemy but both the concept and reality of long-term partnership are rigorously defended, and made deeply joyful. Alexie's no pie-eyed optimist about the institution, but he's also no idealizer of the solitary life, or of American individualism as a worthwhile goal. When his people triumph, or just get by in good grace, it's largely because they're yoked by love to something outside their own experience. Alexie's protagonists spend entire stories inside their heads, sure, but the abundance and the redemption comes when they connect.

That need for connection, I think, is why Alexie's stories insist on laugh-out-loud humor, even at their most tragic. Laughter -- at oneself, at others, at the world -- breaks down barriers. It dissolves otherwise unbearable tensions, even if just for a minute. Poking fun at our pretenses, Alexie establishes time and time again in Blasphemy, allows his characters to glimpse their better angels, even if they're sometimes smeared by alcoholism and loneliness and infidelity. They often are in Alexie's America. But still they rise, and try to do the right thing. In this collection, Alexie gives us thirty-one examples of people attempting to do just that, to connect and, in connecting, move into a place they haven't been before.

Blasphemy: New and Selected Stories by Sherman Alexie
Grove Press
ISBN: 978-0802120397
480 pages