Saturday, 20 June 2009

The Toughest Indian in the World, by Sherman Alexie, pt 1




‘Indianness’ is a central theme in Alexie’s work and race is a concern shared by all of his characters (with the exception, perhaps, of Robert Johnson in Reservation Blues). The reader is never allowed to forget the race of the characters nor encouraged to identify with them simply as people. Skin, hair and eye-colour are frequently used as defining features. References to race are so frequent in Alexie’s stories that I carried out a brief survey, selecting forty pages at random, from four of his books – two novels, Reservation Blues (1995) and Flight (2007), and two collections of short stories - Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven (1993) and The Toughest Indian in the World (2001). I counted all direct references to race (ie Indian, White, Black) including tribal affiliation (Lakota, Spokane, Flathead), blood quantum (half-blood, quarter-blood), and slang (breed, skins, redskins). I did not, though, include other Indian identifiers (braids, tipis, warriors, blue eyes). Using this method, I found an average of 2.2 direct references to race per page in Lone Ranger, 3.5 in Reservation Blues, 4.3 in Toughest Indian, and 2.6 in Flight. The effect is something akin to a jackhammer and after a while Alexie’s stories begin to feel oppressive. As a white reader, I am very much an outsider in Alexie’s world. Which is, of course, at least part of point.

In the early books, in particular, Alexie makes no attempt to link characters to universal themes or to acknowledge that there are common emotional experiences that extend beyond race. Alexie does not pander to a white audience and I get the feeling that he probably wouldn’t mind if he had no white audience at all. Thankfully, that is not the case. Over the past few decades, the New Age movement has hijacked Native American spirituality, and white America in general has romanticised Indians and Indian culture through the commercialisation of ‘Native American Wisdom’. Rather than allowing white Americans to empathise with Indians, as I think is the intention, this romantic view serves to assuage our guilt over the decimation of Native Americans in the 19th century, and their position at the bottom of economic and life expectancy surveys in the 21st. Alexie throws out that idealised, romantic image of Indians and gives us instead, a gritty, realistic one where poverty, violence and alcoholism are as much a part the Indian experience as powwows, vision quests and respect for Nature. White readers benefit from Alexie’s keen observation and biting criticism, which reflects the deep division between Native and non-Native Americans. Only by acknowledging that division, and our role in creating it, can true reparation begin.

While Alexie’s first short story collection, Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven, features a core group of characters and is largely set in the town of Wellpinit, Washington, the nine stories in The Toughest Indian in the World move off the reservation to Seattle or the nearby city of Spokane. The ‘urban Indians’ at the heart of these stories are educated, middle class and sober, and outwardly at least, they are fully integrated into the dominant white society. But as in the first story, ‘Assimilation’, race is ‘a constant presence’ (p.14).

‘Assimilation’ is the story of Mary Lynn, ‘a Coeur d’Alene Indian married to a white man’ who wants to find ‘the darkest Indian in Seattle – the man with the greatest amount of melanin – and get naked with him in a cheap motel room’ (p. 3). Though she sees the Indian men from the reservation where she grew up as ‘liars, cheats, and thieves’, part of her sees her husband, Jeremiah, because he is white, as something worse. She ‘wanted to cheat on her white husband because he was white’ but also because she is compelled to find out if she made the right decision when she married him. She is also aware that ‘treaties get broken’ (p. 1), and so, perhaps as a way of protecting herself, she is exercising her power to break her marriage treaty before Jeremiah does.

Mary Lynn is also torn between what might be described as tribal, or even racial loyalty, and her reliable, but unexciting husband: unlike Indian men, ‘[w]hite men had rarely disappointed her, but they’d never surprised he either’ (p. 5). Experiencing what appears to be a mid-life, or mid-marriage, crisis, Mary Lynn worries that she has betrayed her roots and become less Indian as a consequence of her comfortable, urban lifestyle. The couple’s four children are divided down the racial line, just as they are: two blond girls, and two ‘dark-skinned’ boys ‘with their mother’s black hair, strong jawline, and endless nose’ (p. 12). Both sets of grandparents dote on the boys and Jeremiah, either as a way of making up for this perceived unfairness, or as justification for his own bias towards his daughters, vows ‘to love the girls a little more than he loved the boys’ (p. 12). But are the girls really loved less, or is this a case of ‘affirmative action’ (a theme repeated throughout the story), favouring the children perceived to be disadvantaged by their ethnicity?

While the narrative is primarily written from Mary Lynn’s perspective, now and then it slips into Jeremiah’s point of view and we see how both characters are struggling with their own insecurities. Mary Lynn knows Jeremiah’s secret, that ‘he was still in love with a white woman from high school he hadn’t seen in decades’ but also knows that this is mere fantasy, that ‘he was truly in love with the idea of a white woman from a mythical high school, with a prom queen named If Only or a homecoming princess named My Life Could Have Been Different’ (p. 9). By contrast, Jeremiah’s worries have a more concrete basis, and he wonders ‘if his wife was ever going to leave him because he was white’ (p. 12).

The climax of the story comes as the couple drive home from an unsuccessful evening out and find themselves stuck in a traffic jam on a bridge. As Jeremiah gets out of the car to investigate, Mary Lynn watches him walk away from the car and ‘[s]he was slapped by the brief, irrational fear that he would never return’ (p. 17). Out on the bridge, Jeremiah finds a young woman about to commit suicide. He strains to hear the name she is calling, knowing that ‘the name had value, importance’(p. 18) and can only watch as the woman plunges into the river. Still with the car and without knowing what is happening, Mary Lynn experiences a revelation. Her fear of losing her husband has shown her how much she still loves him, ‘sometimes because he was white and often despite of his whiteness. In her fear, she found the one truth Sitting Bull never knew: there was at least one white man who could be trusted’ (p. 19). As he stares over the side of the bridge, Jeremiah, too, realises where his future lay: ‘“I’m never leaving,”’ he says aloud, knowing ‘that his wife was a constant’ (ibid).

The final scene is ambiguous. Jeremiah rushes back towards his wife, but he does not reach her. From across a distance, they call out to each other, he shouting her name, and she honking the car horn to guide him back. But they are not yet physically reunited, perhaps symbolising that regardless of their love for one another, there will always be a division between them.

Relationships – sexual, platonic, familial and interracial – run throughout this collection. In the title story, the narrator is a Spokane Indian journalist, and frustrated poet, whose last relationship was with a white colleague who made a point of only dating ‘brown-skinned guys’ because she found white men dull (p. 25). Now, however, he is alone and lonely, living in a ‘studio apartment with the ghosts of two dogs, Felix and Oscar, and a laptop computer stuffed with bad poems, the aborted halves of three novels, and some three-paragraph personality pieces’ written for the newspaper (ibid). Having left the reservation twelve years before, the narrator now lives in Spokane. Though only an hour’s drive away he seldom goes back to see his parents and siblings. He phones, however, ‘once or twice a week’ (p. 27) but is caught between two worlds, uncertain about where he belongs.

Driving to another town, he picks up an Indian hitchhiker, a practice he acquired from his father. The hitchhiker is a Lummi boxer, with a ‘[c]rooked nose that had been broken more than once’, ‘some serious muscles that threatened to rip through his blue jeans and denim jacket’ and knuckles ‘covered with layers of scar tissue’ (p. 26). The fighter travels from reservation to reservation, earning a living from illegal bare-knuckle fights. He has just fought a Flathead boxer, a ‘big buck Indian who ‘was supposed to be the toughest Indian in the world’ (p. 29). Though the fighter hit him repeatedly ‘like he was a white man’ the Flathead boy wouldn’t fall. The fight went on and on and the fighter knew ‘[t]hat kid was planning to die before he ever went down’ (ibid). Deciding to throw the fight, he sat down on the ground until he was counted out. The narrator is excited by the man’s story and gushes enthusiastically, ‘“You would’ve been a warrior in the old days....a killer. You would have stolen everybody’s goddam horses”’ (p. 30).

The narrator reaches his destination, but knowing the fighter has nowhere to spend the night, offers to let the man stay in his motel room. The fighter lies down to sleep on the floor, but in the night he moves into the bed and the narrator admits that ‘the fighter’s callused fingers felt better than I would have imagined if I had ever allowed myself to imagine such things’ (p. 31). He tells the fighter that he is not gay but does not resist as ‘I wanted him to save me’ (p. 32). After they have sex, the narrator thinks of the battered Flathead boy and asks the fighter to leave. Alone in the bathroom, he throws ‘a few shadow punches’ (p. 33) and examines his body to see if he has been changed by this encounter. He feels stronger, having captured something of the fighter’s warrior spirit and wonders if he too is a warrior.

When the narrator wakes the next morning, there is a sense of renewal as he travels upriver, like the salmon, ‘toward the place where I was born and will someday die’ (p. 34). He knows now that the reservation is where he truly belongs, but he also knows that his life there will be one without hope.

In ‘Class’, Edgar Eagle Runner, a lawyer, meets and marries Susan McDermott. Her white family boycott the wedding, but his ‘dark-skinned mother’ is ‘overjoyed’ by his choice of bride: ‘She’d always wanted me to marry a white woman and beget half-breed children who would marry white people who would beget quarter-bloods, and so on and so on, until simple mathematics killed the Indian in us’ (p. 40). Is the preference for pale-skinned grandchildren, and even more pale great grandchildren evidence of self-loathing as Grassian (2005, p. 163) suggests, or simply an acknowledgement that life would be far easier for these children if they were seen (and saw themselves) as white?

We do not know what their relationship is like but are told that during the first two years of their marriage they attended a succession of social functions, and for seven months after their first anniversary Susan had an affair. Edgar accidentally discovers the man’s love letters but ‘kept the letters sacred by carefully placing them back, intact and unread, in the shoe box’ (p. 42). Instead of confronting his wife, he begins to patronise prostitutes when he is away from home on business. In San Francisco, he phones an escort agency and asks if they have an Indian woman. By this time he has slept with seventeen prostitutes, ‘all of them blond and blue-eyed’ like his wife (in Alexie’s work, white women are always blond and blue-eyed) but admits that he’d never had sex with an Indian woman (p. 43). When a white woman wearing a long black wig shows up at his hotel room he declares that she is his last prostitute.

After three years of marriage, Susan gives birth to a baby who quickly dies. Showing no understanding of his wife’s feelings, Edgar assumes that her reluctance to have sex is indication of another affair. He hires a private detective who ‘found only evidence of grief: crying jags in public rest rooms, aimless wandering in the children’s departments of Nordstrom’s and the Bon Marche, and visits to a therapist I’d never heard about’ (p. 46). He comes to believe that he has never physically satisfied his wife and leaves home in the middle of the night to go to an Indian bar where, unlike the usual places he goes with colleagues, he won’t have to adhere to dress codes or encounter ‘beautiful white women’ (p. 47). Looking like ‘a Gap ad’ (p. 50), he sits at the bar and watches an Indian man playing pool. The man begins taunting Edgar, accurately, about his middle-class life and blonde, blue-eyed trophy wife. It is not, though, until the man mentions children that Edgar responds. Though he acknowledges that the man could kill him with ‘a flick of one finger’ (p. 49), Edgar accepts his challenge and steps into the alley to fight because ‘[d]eep in the heart of the heart of every Indian man’s heart, he believes he is Crazy Horse’ (p. 53).

Edgar wakes in the backroom of the bar as Sissy, the bartender, washes the blood from his face. He makes a pass at her, which she quickly rejects, and is reproached for his claim of wanting to be with ‘my people’ (p. 55). Sissy realises what Edgar does not, that though they are both Indian, they are from different worlds. Each wants what the other has: Edgar wants to be part of an ethnic community; Sissy wants to be free from worries about feeding her family.

Though Edgar has tried and failed to be what he thinks of as an Indian, the story ends on a faintly positive note when he returns home and Susan asks where he has been. ‘“I was gone,” [he] said. “But now I’m back”’ (p. 56).

In all three of these stories, sex is seen as a way of channelling ‘Indianness’, a means by which characters who have lost their Indian identity can regain a sense of their true selves. The use of sex here is similar to the traditional practices of many Native American tribes who believed special skills or powers could be transferred from one man to another, via sex with the same woman (Jones, 2004 and Ambrose, 2003).

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