Forty-one years ago, my uncle Hector said he was hitchhiking to Spokane, walked out the door, and disappeared. I was only seven years old and he was my favorite relative. He’d be seventy-two now. He left as a randomly employed blue-collar reservation alcoholic, but, if he hadn’t vanished, he probably would have sobered up and become a tribal elder. Indian men live wild-horse lives, running beautiful and dangerous, until some outside force – some metaphorical cowboy – breaks them.
Sherman Alexie’s stories have a simple rhythm to them. You’re reading along – ok, got that, yeah, fine – then you come up short at a single word (like, for instance, “cowboy” above), and realize it isn’t so simple after all. His description of the Coeur d’Alene Indians’ Catholicism as well: “When we eat the bread and drink the wine we’re eating and drinking Jesus, Mary, and all twelve of the Apostles, even that traitor Judas.” See? You were with him until he got to that last one.
This is Alexie’s offering for the 2013 TNY Summer Fiction issue, themed “Crimes and Misdemeanors.” Sorting out the crimes here could take a while. But don’t worry, you’ll enjoy the surface story right away.
The narrator decides it’s time to have a funeral for the above-referenced uncle. “Best part of the funeral: we had an open and empty casket.” The story is peppered with “best part” declarations, funny, heartbreaking, ironic. Like: “Best part of the funeral: we had an open and empty casket.”
Throughout there’s a pronounced duality; there usually is in Alexie’s stories, as he resists the sentimental tug of saintly victimhood. “Everything – our worst losses and our greatest beauty – is deemed sacred and necessary,” the narrator tells us. “You’re a car wreck with eagle feathers,” his father told him long ago. Little Bighorn is paired with Wounded Knee. And, for the finishing touch, there are two theories of just what happened to Uncle Hector.
“…we need to make the dead better people than they were, because it makes us look better for loving them.”
This seems to be my week for deceptively simple stories. I’ve only read four Alexie stories, and I’ve enjoyed them all. I love a word that brings me up short, a sentence that changes the landscape.