Blasphemy by Sherman Alexie

I first became aware of Sherman Alexie when I read in an issues of People magazine about a list of books that had once been banned in schools. Alexie’s The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian wound up on that list, because it seems geared to young adults but talks about “grown up” subjects such as masturbation. I feel somewhat of a duty to read books that end up on banned lists. It could be a symptom of the same malady that causes people to stop and look at car wrecks, but I like to think it’s my passive aggressive way of defending the 1st Amendment of the Constitution. Whatever the motivation, I read Diary of a Part-Time Indian and absolutely loved it. So, when I saw Alexie was coming out with a new collection (new is relative: some are new stories, some are old), of his short stories, I didn’t even hesitated to get it.

The blurb on the back of the book says, “In these comfort-zone-destroying tales…his characters grapple with racism, damaging stereotypes, poverty, alcoholism, diabetes, and the tragic languages and customs.” Comfort-zone-destroying is right. There are things in his stories beyond the ones in this list that challenged my comfort-zone, but Alexie has such a gift for creating sympathetic characters that even when he puts them in situations that tend to make my skin crawl, I still feel compelled to finish the story, to find out their fate. His stories had a lot of funny (sometimes morbidly so), heartwarming, and heartbreaking moments, too. So much like real life.

If you’ve read Diary of a Part-Time Indian, you’ll know that it is basically a biography of Alexie’s childhood. I recommend reading it first, if you’re unfamiliar with Alexie’s work. It’s a great foundation for many of the other stories in Blasphemy. You’ll know from reading Part-Time Indian that Alexie grew up on a Spokane Indian Reservation. He had Encephalitis, but evaded brain damage to become a high school scholar and class president. You’ll also know he is an absolute nut for basketball. You’re going to read A LOT about basketball in Blasphemy, particularly in “Whatever Happened to Frank Snake Church?” which was my favorite story in the collection. In it, Alexie gives some insight into his mania for basketball and what it means to him; it’s spiritual, it’s messianic, it’s his religion. Another story in the collection is “War Dances.” Read it to get an idea about what happened to Junior and his father after Part-Time Indian.

For me in particular, a reader who comes from a state that has four ACC Division 1 basketball teams; that birthed Michael Jordan; that is Mike Kryzewski’s (Coach K’s) playground, basketball is an everyday part of life, whether I like it or not. I am intimately acquainted with people who share Alexie’s devotion to the sport, so I can kind of relate. I could see the basketball obsession in Blasphemy getting old for some readers, though. For them, I recommend reading the book in smaller bites, one-at-a-time, not story after story after story like I read it.

Blasphemy is not all about basketball. It’s more about being a modern Native American. I figure I’m about as white as it gets, and while North Carolina has a history with Native American populations, I live in a part of the state far removed from our closest Cherokee reservation. My awareness of Native American culture is limited, to say the least. Blasphemy tears open the Indian reservation shroud and allows insight into the interior of the Northwestern Native American population that would rarely be available to outsiders. It’s no polished and glorified representation like some Hollywood movies. Sure, Alexie talks about pride and honor and tradition, but he’s not the least bit hesitant to air the dirty laundry (sorry for the cliché).

Blasphemy is gritty and real and uncomfortable at times, but that is also exactly why you should read it.

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4 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Elizabeth
    Nov 01, 2012 @ 17:15:28

    I also loved Part-Time Indian and have wanted to read more of Alexie’s work, but haven’t gotten to it yet. I’m not big on basketball (I live in Texas so it’s all about football around here), but really enjoy his perspective on res life. As a student, I actually took a few Native American studies/Western history classes, so while I knew that reservations are poverty-ridden sad places, it hits home harder through fiction. I will have to pick this one up at some point- thanks for the review!

    Reply

    • squee1313
      Nov 03, 2012 @ 01:12:44

      Some of the stories made me cringe, but most were either humorous or just so emotionally raw that I felt like the characters were some of the realest people I’ve ever read about. I couldn’t always say for sure that all the stories were fiction.

      Reply

  2. Lucy
    Nov 03, 2012 @ 04:26:14

    I have a copy of Part-Time Indian on my bookshelf and really need to read it. And now you make Blasphemy sound great too. The “comfort-zone destroying tales” description makes me a little uneasy though, so I’ll take your advice and start with Part-Time Indian. Thanks for introducing this one!

    Reply

    • squee1313
      Nov 03, 2012 @ 17:16:54

      Parts of the book will probably make you uneasy, but in a way that after you’re done reading it, you felt like you learned something about the world you didn’t know before. Mostly its funny and very real, like Part Time Indian. Sometimes its downright charming and heartwarming. Rare to read a book so chock full of contradictory emotions. It’s an emo-roller coaster.

      Reply

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