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September 01, 2008

Overdue Review

I started this a while ago but never finished it. I'm posting it now.

This is why everybody hates me: I just read Sherman Alexie's The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian and I'm struggling to find good things to say about it.

It flowed very easily, that much is true. Perhaps that's a feat, but coming from a celebrated poet, I tend to think that's just a basic prerequisite. On the other hand, though, as we know from early Ondaatje and Li-Young Lee's memoir, poets do have a tendency to strain fiction readers' patience, rather than feeding their desire for flow. On the third hand, this is not Alexie's first fiction.

That aside, the book was a muddle of no conflict, no action taken to resolve the conflict, little convincing emotion, and a poor understanding of how kids think and speak.

This is what our protag, upon finding out that they have to shoot his dog because they don't have the money to take him to the vet, says:

Dad just looked down at me with the saddest look in his eyes. He was crying. He looked weak.

I wanted to hate him for his weakness.

I wanted to hate Dad and Mom for our poverty.

I wanted to blame them for my sick dog and for all the other sickness in the world.

But I can't blame my parents for our poverty because my mother and father are the twin suns around which I orbit and my world would EXPLODE without them.

And it's not like my mother and father were born into wealth. It's not like they gambled away their family fortunes. My parents came from poor people who came from poor people who came from poor people, all the way back to the very first poor people.

Adam and Eve covered their privates with fig leaves; the first Indians covered their privates with their tiny hands.

Seriously, I know my mother and father had their dreams when they were kids. They dreamed about being something other than poor, but they never got the chance to be anything because nobody paid attention to their dreams.

This is a fourteen-year-old boy. At the beginning of a novel. Seriously, what does he have to learn?

As the book goes on, the protag encounters problems and ... solves them. Every. Single. One. Each one solved, in one shot. Everything he does works, even when he doesn't think it's going to, even when he shoots from the hip, even when he's not trying. He's supposedly ugly and geeky, but then all he has to do is switch to a white kids' school and all of a sudden he's the star basketball player, beating up the king jock, and dating the hottest girl in school. Plus, the king jock is paying his way and giving him rides. He makes no mistakes whatsoever. All of his problems are somebody else's fault, and most of them nobody's fault, just The System's. And he overcomes them easily.

Yawn.

It's supposed to be a gritty, realistic portrait of the hopelessness and poverty of life on a reservation ... but also an uplifting wish-fulfillment vehicle about the Power Of One. Or something. Can't be both, dude. It really reminded me of my best fantasy lives when I was a teenager: things were only satisfying if my alter ego came from extreme poverty, suffered death and horrible loss and abuse in her family and community, but climbed up out of all of this through a combination of hard work and absurd good luck.

I'd recommend it to kids who show an annoying tendency to exotify Indians, but otherwise, what is everybody cheering about?

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Comments

just thought i'd mention you're not alone in not getting alexie. i haven't read this book, but the short stories i've read and the bits of his work i've heard read aloud seemed similarly obvious and, uh, whatsthebigdealaboutthisguyagain?

i've read a couple of his short stories ... i'm sure i have ... i just don't remember them. but i have to say, i LOVED his film THE BUSINESS OF FANCYDANCING, which deals with a lot of the same themes and issues that PART TIME INDIAN did but in a much more complex and interesting way.

i guess i should read more of his stuff.

I've really enjoyed some of Alexie's short stories. When I heard him speak at Modern Times Bookstore a few years ago, the place was PACKED, and he did a great reading.

And I've just discovered a streak of misogyny and narcissism in the collection of his poems I'm currently reading - "One Stick Song" (Hanging Loose Press, 2000) - that's put me off him permanently. I doubt I'll ever pick up a book by him again.

Sample quotes:

"I'd like to slap her across the mouth, statistically speaking" (of a flight attendant who annoys him).

"I know now that a white woman could never love me in the way an Indian woman can....I know that Indian women are proud of me for choosing to love an Indian woman." (on his sexual obsession with white women, and why he married an Indian woman)

yikes! why do we have to eat around so many writers' misogyny, like picking currants out of fruitcake?

women writers who display any misandry get ignored by other women, and never make it to men's attention, so why can't men operate the same filter? (that's a rhetorical question, by the way.)

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