'War Dances' steps with wisdom, wit

The men in War Dances, Sherman Alexie's terrific collection of stories and poems, are frequently flummoxed — by life, women, history.

The father in The Ballad of Paul Nonetheless can't understand why his daughters are appalled by the music he generously loads into their new iPods. ("But all these songs are your songs. . . . They're not mine.") The screenwriter in Fearful Symmetry doesn't know why his words desert him after the studio butchers his script. A spoiled gay basher unwittingly beats up an old friend in The Senator's Son. The young intern in Salt who writes obituaries is shocked to learn there are realities worse than death.

Author of 13 books of poetry, three story collections, four novels and the award-winning screenplay for Smoke Signals, the wily Alexie places his characters at crossroads, then sits back to see which way they'll turn. The author, who won a National Book Award for his young adult novel The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, writes odes to boys who would drive through blizzards to see a girl, to couples who need to sit together on plane flights even though the computer thinks otherwise. "Whenever I'm asked / to trade seats / For somebody else's love / I do, I always do."

In the title story, a husband and father of two finds that a brush with mortality returns him to memories of his father. The old man — really not so old at 67 but ravaged by decades of drinking — had to have his feet removed, and now he can't get warm. His son scours the hospital, looking for other American Indians, because he's sure they'll have blankets. He meets a likely possibility in the hospital corridor and explains the situation.

"Diabetes?" the man asks.

"And vodka."

"Vodka straight up or with a nostalgia chaser?"

"Both."

"Natural causes for an Indian."

It's a poignant yet funny scene, and later the stranger takes the narrator to task for stereotyping his own people. Yet, miraculously, he also hands over a blanket, blessed by his father.

War Dances

By Sherman Alexie

Grove, 208 pages, $23

'War Dances' steps with wisdom, wit 12/12/09 [Last modified: Saturday, December 12, 2009 2:10pm]

    

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