Listen up, people: Forget you ever believed in the stereotype of the stone-faced Indian right now, this instant. Sherman Alexiewill have none of that, and he's entitled. One of modern literature's most talented and committed newcomers, the Spokane Indian fiction writer can shatter that stoic mug with a single paragraph. His is the kind of writing that reveals human layers in a remarkable and realistic way, instantaneously exposing facets both deeply sad and uproariously funny -- just like that.
And he's on a roll. Alexie's new short-story collection, The Toughest Indian in the World, is so deftly human in tone that you'd be hard-pressed to find fault with his targets. So leave him alone. The stories, which deposit people from different cultures and subcultures into difficult situations with almost deliberate force -- Indians with whites, assimilated Indians with non-assimilated Indians and so forth -- are the only arrows he'll ever shoot through your heart, with a willfulness that intends only to educate.
"I really tried in this book to get white readers off my back about that, but they still talk like I don't like them," Alexie says. His critics, who've been after his scalp since he teased them all so purposefully with his polemic thriller Indian Killer, still don't seem to get the joke. "It's so funny. I don't know where that comes from, except that maybe my jokes don't play well in print," the author notes. "Actually, I'm very funny -- that's what people miss. Whatever group a person belongs to, those are the only jokes they hear, without fail. But I make fun of everyone -- I'm an equal-opportunity offender. I believe we're all fulla shit."
How does Alexie find his knife-sharp, straightforward muse? Is it just honesty? "To quote Whitman: 'I contain the multitudes,'" he says. "I have a multiple personality. I write like I talk and live. There's a huge difference between art and artist, and I prefer it if my work is like me." And is it? "I figure I'm batting about .500." And does love conquer all? Or is there too much history in the way? "I don't know," Alexie admits. "I have no answers for anything -- but I hope I have some pretty good questions."
Alexie comes across as a Renaissance man, but insists he's just a writer: "If a plumber didn't fix pipes, he'd be unemployed. There's nothing I'd rather be doing. I live in an ideal world because I'm happy making a living doing what I love the most." Someday he'd like to coach high school basketball, though he doubts the field will make room for him in this sensitive millennium: "I'm an old-style coach, a yeller and screamer, the kind that challenges your manhood. Nowadays, there are all these sensitive new-age basketball players weeping, calling for their counselors."
He's broken into films, taking an active hand in creating Smoke Signals, with beautiful results, and is waiting for word from Hollywood on his proposed next project, a screen version of his first novel, Reservation Blues. Still, he'll never be an actor, though he thought about it fleetingly: "But I'm too big," he says. "I would look like the cyclops next to the other actors."
And anyone who's read his books knows he loves American music -- Robert Johnson and Hank Williams and Jimi Hendrix and just about anyone else who ever cranked out a seminal riff -- and he would give anything to join their pantheon. So what's Sherman Alexie -- a guy who longs to be a rock star but says he's too fat ("I'll never be a rock star. I will keep all my hair, though") -- listening to lately? At this instant, Deana Carter's "Did I Shave My Legs for This?" which he says he loves because it's so true, is on the CD player.
"In fact," claims Alexie, "I shaved my legs for this interview!" Well, so did I, Sherman. So did I.