Sherman Alexie : Reservation Blues

Sherman Alexie Reservation Blues book cover

Reservation Blues revisits the characters of Thomas Builds-the-Fire, Victor Joseph and Junior Polatkin, first written about so memorably in the 1993 short story collection The Lone Ranger And Tonto Fistfight In Heaven (read my review here). In Reservation Blues, long-dead and legendary Blues musician Robert Johnson somehow makes his way onto the Spokane Indian Reservation and quickly disposes his famous guitar into the hands of angry (and mostly drunk) Victor Joseph, who from that moment on, plays a mean guitar.

Together with his best buddy Junior and Thomas, he starts Coyote Springs, a band that after some rocky beginnings manages its way off the reservation (‘’anywhere off the reservation,’ Thomas said ‘ ,is along ways from the reservation’’), first to the Flathead Indian Reservation and later to Seattle, eventually landing in New York City. In between they get helped and/or distracted by a variety of imaginatively conceived characters, such as Flathead sisters Chess and Checkers Warm Water and Seattle New Agers Betty and Veronica, who briefly join Coyote Springs only to leave both the band and the reservation because ‘it’s nuts here’. Also always lurking in the shadows are the-man-who-was-probably-Lakota and Big Mom, a mystical figure living high up on Wellpinit Mountain where she is joined by Robert Johnson. Things take a decidedly turn for the worse after the audition in New York City goes less than ideal and the hoped-for path to stardom curtailed. Back on the reservation, Junior takes his own life and the band gets scattered with the wind.

Things of course don’t go by without a myriad of complications and hiccups, such as various little and big tiffs between various members of Coyote Springs, beautiful Checkers Warm Waters falling in love with the reservation priest Father Arnold, and the continuing struggle with money worries.

The writing is once again wonderfully unique and steeped in mystique, such as in the last sentence of the book ‘Checkers and Chess reached out of their windows and held tightly to the manes of those shadow hoses running alongside the blue van’.

I wasn’t that totally captivated by his writing style as when I was reading The Lone Ranger And Tonto… but that might only because the short story collection was the first book I read by Sherman Alexie and his writing style was brand new to me then.

As in that book, the humdrum tragedy of life on an Indian reservation are very much in the focus of the book, as witnessed in conversations such as this one by Father Arnold and Checkers Warm Waters: ‘Does everything have to be about money?’ ‘Of course it does. Only people with enough money ever ask that question anyway’.

Speaking for Sherman Alexie is the fact that none of the often rather serious subject matter is written in an educational or preachy way. On the contrary, he manages to convey the things he wants to say in an often downright hilarious, even wacky way, without sacrificing his messages or diluting the comments and observations of the harsh realities of life on an Indian reservation and the continuing struggle Native American society is experiencing. Which is one of the main reasons endearing his work to me so much. Reservation Blues is an extraordinarily well-conceived story featuring a great cast of memorable characters. All of which are written about with loving attention to detail, culled both from reality and the inventive mind of Sherman Alexie, who as a mixed Spokane/Couer D’Alene is uniquely well-adapted to write about these things. As for my attraction to his writings and all things Native American, that attitude of the ‘white man’ gets addressed numerous times in the book too, such as in the scenes with Betty and Veronica, so that’s given me a chance to reflect on my motivations, which is making his books particularly relevant to myself and a lot of other people reading them.

Smoke Signals

Smoke signals DVD cover Jpeg

As I wrote in my review of Sherman Alexie’s book The Lone-Ranger And Tonto Fistfight In Heaven, Smoke Signals is based on various stories and characters found in that short story collection. In cooperation with Sherman Alexie, who wrote the screenplay, director Chris Eyre straightened out some of the disjointed parts and managed to make them into a cohesive whole. It has to be said however, thankfully in my opinion, that the short story character of the book is continued here via a large amount of flashbacks that are intervowen into the story quite masterfully, so in that respect alone the film very much succeeds.

But that’s by far not the only level on which it does so. First and foremost, the acting is uniformly excellent. I especially have to mention Evan Adams as Thomas Builds-the-Fire here. How much I admired that character should be made clear if you read my review of the book. But after watching the film (which I had seen before I read the book) again, I have to say that this admiration is closely linked to Adams’ unforgettable performance in the film (talk about deserving an Oscar in a better world). His performance is equal parts hilarious, tragic, and most of all, singular and magnificent. The acting on part of both Thomas’ and especially Victor’s 12-year old selves isn’t half bad as well. You can tell that there is a whole lot going on behind young Victor’s stoic and mostly silent face, it’s an absolute pleasure to watch. Also exceptionally good is Gary Farmer’s performance as Victor’s dad Arnold Joseph, but that shouldn’t come as a surprise to anybody that has ever seen him in a performance before, even if it’s just a brief one as in Jim Jarmusch’s Ghost Dog : The Way Of The Samurai. He’s got an incredible presence in front of a camera (and I assume in life), he’s hard to forget. Here he shines as Victor’s crazy, drunk and abusive dad that flees the family and reservation life to Phoenix, Arizona where he can’t forget what he’s done at all. It’s also here he dies a lonely death in a trailer somewhere out in the desert.

Pretty much his only company in this barren desert seems to have been beautiful Suzy Song (played equally wonderfully by Irene Bedard) who he forms some kind of relationship of rather undetermined nature with. Whether they were lovers or having some kind of father-daughter relationship is left open by what Suzy’s tells Victor and Thomas during the longer scene in which Victor (played by Adam Beach) and Thomas stay with her for one night to pick up Arnold’s ashes. To the credit of the filmmakers, there’s not a romantic scene developing between handsome, athletic alpha-male Victor and Suzy. There’s a shine in here eyes in the beginning, sure, but as the scene develops it becomes clear that she’s rather taken aback by his somewhat harsh behavior and the problems he doesn’t seem to be able to adequately express, let alone handle. She’s also rather intrigued by the stories Thomas’ incessantly tells – probably the first person in a very long time to respond positively to them.

Of course Victor and Thomas don’t make it back to the Coeur D’Alene reservation without any problems, as they get involved in a car wreck, but luckily for them things end relatively well and they don’t get arrested by the police for their role in the crash. They arrive back on the reservation with, one can only hope, a new kind of understanding between them and a softened attitude on Victor’s part towards Thomas.

As I am a rather visually oriented person, adding a lot for me to making me love Smoke Signals, are the wonderful landscapes seen in numerous long shots of the Coeur D’Alene Indian Reservation in Idaho on which the film was shot for the most part (some scenes were shot in Washington). Not surprising, but very welcome nevertheless, are the flashes of humor, of course mostly on Thomas’ part, such as in conversations like this one: Victor: ‘… you gotta look like a warrior, you gotta look like you just came back killing a buffalo’. Thomas: ‘But our tribe never hunted buffalo, we were fisherman’.

Taking a step back compared with The Lone-Ranger And Tonto is the focus on the more serious and difficult realities today’s Native Americans face, the signs are everywhere you look of course, but this film is primarily concerned with the themes of forgiveness and coming to terms with what happened in the past. A beautiful, humane and compassionate film.

Sherman Alexie : The Lone-Ranger And Tonto Fistfight In Heaven

Lone Ranger And Tonto Cover Jpeg

I first heard of Sherman Alexie in connection with the brilliant film Smoke Signals which is based on various characters and stories fund in this collection of 22 short stories, first published in 1993. Most of the stories are told from the viewpoint of Victor and Thomas-Builds-The-Fire, also the main characters in the film. They, like Sherman Alexie himself live on the Spokane Indian Reservation in Washington, so I suppose it’s fair to say that many of the people, their life circumstances and stories described here are based on his own experiences growing up there. The often troublesome circumstances in which Native Americans live on (and off for that matter) reservations in the second half of the 20th century and the start of the 21st are permeating pretty much every sentence in these stories.

One of the quotes on the book jacket is focusing exclusively on the humoristic side in some of the stories, but don’t let that fool you. While there certainly is humor present that claim is as least overdone if not downright misleading. The wrong that has been (and is) done, and all the problems arising from it, to Native American tribes and their people is never far away in all of those stories.

Take The Only Traffic Signal On The Reservation Doesn’t Flash Red Anymore, in which Victor and his friend Adrian are watching proceedings on the reservation from their front porch. The story centers (if from afar, he’s only spoken about) on Julius Windmaker, a talented 15-year-old basketball player. The guys wonder if he’ll make that hoped-for by all on the reservation career or, if he, like many equally promising players before him, will fall prey to drinking. The latter is sadly the case, as, in the last paragraph of the story, he’s crashed out sleeping on Victor’s living room floor after a basketball match which he played drunk, looking ‘puffy around the edges’. A glimmer of hope however is on hand however as an apparently equally talented 3rd grader called Lucy is seen by Victor and Adrian walking with her friends on their way to a game. One can’t help but wonder what happened to her.

One of the very best stories in here is called Because My Father Always Said He Was The Only Indian Who Saw Jimi Hendrix Play “The Star-Spangled Banner” at Woodstock. It’s a touching story about the stormy marriage of Victor’s parents, ending in divorce, with his dad leaving the family and the reservation to live in a number of large cities in the Western US. It is told full of childish wonder, Victor’s admiration for his dad and his infamous past and hurt.

This Is What It Means To Say Phoenix Arizona is equally heartbreaking and forms the nucleus of Smoke Signals. In it, Victor and his former friend Thomas-Builds-The-Fire, so wonderfully played by Evan Adams in the film, fly out to Phoenix to retrieve the ashes of Victor’s dad. It’s told in bittersweet words, with two friends/cousins having lived through so much together but now being somewhat estranged, making this trip together as Victor needs Thomas’ money and Thomas blacklisting him to take him with him. Obviously it’s very sad too, not only because of Victor having to drive from Phoenix to Spokane with all that’s left of his father. But it is made even more so, because of Thomas’ sad life and the abuse he’s had to endure, not least at the hands of Victor who once beat him up drunk, when they were both 15 in front of their friends. The dignity with which Thomas is mastering his life as an orphan and storyteller nobody wants to listen to anymore is admirable and touching. He’s managing to stay compassionate and friendly even to Victor, knowing full well that Victor can’t be nicer to him even if he wants to, as ‘I know your friends would give you too much shit about it”. Moreover he’s always good-natured and seemingly devoid of any hard feelings with a big dose of humor to boot.

Jesus Christ’s Half Brother Is Alive And Well On The Spokane Indian Reservation is marvelous too, charting 8 years in the life of the narrator (Victor?) taking care of a little child he not quite rescued from a burning house in which young James’ parents both die (the story gets used in Smoke Signals too). He fails to catch the boy who falls to the ground but miraculously survives and people quickly decided that he has to raise the little boy by himself. James turns out to be a slow-developer, but when he finally does start to talk is turning out wisdom after wisdom.

Imagining The Reservation is a free-form story, I couldn’t honestly tell you what it’s about, but the imagery used throughout the story put me into an almost trance-like state of mind for the few minutes it took me to read the rather short story. Impressive.

A Good Story is rather light-hearted compared with the serious subject matter that is at the very core of most other stories in here. The story told by the narrator to his mother ends with the sentence: “Uncle Moses sat down in the story chair and told this very story’ which shows you a great deal about how inventive Alexie’s writing style is, if you think about it.

What I liked especially about these stories is their language. They are interspersed with sentences that don’t really seem to make sense. I guess that’s the influence of Native American storytelling, to me as a ‘white men’ it’s very appealing and greatly contributes to making this book a wonderful experience to read.

It’s an important book, touching on so many contemporary issues affecting Native Americans at this day and age. That it’s wrote in such an entertaining way and such a singular language makes it only more commendable and outstanding.