Sherman Alexie is one of the funniest writers you've probably never heard of.
That's too bad, because he's like a Native American Richard Pryor, his stripped down lines ringing with truth and dripping with punchlines. (It's no surprise that in addition to paying tribute to Emily Dickinson, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and Ralph Waldo Emerson, he also rejoices in the comedy king of the 70s and 80s.) And there's the pain, too. Plenty of pain. Not to mention anger at the inherent unfairness of life, human or otherwise. We mourn for our dead fathers and fear for our young sons. We fall victim to addiction, and our spouses fall victim to us. We crush bugs, call them pests . . . separate families of birds by moving their nests. Are we really better than them because we're bigger? Are we all really all different, or more or
All the while, Alexie balances pain and anger with humor -- some might say of a sophomoric nature. Sometimes, though, as Alexie's work contends, the best response to death and despair is a good old fashioned dick joke.
Let's step back for a moment. I can't claim to be an Alexie expert (though I wouldn't mind becoming one), but I have read Flight (a novel from 2007), a couple short stories from The Toughest Indian in the World (2000), and now Face, his latest book of poems published in April. His work, if I can generalize, tends to revolve around issues of sex, maturity, masculinity (or lack of all of these), and what it means to be Native American in an age when many seem content to pretend that Indians are history book characters and not living people.
All that said, I find Face to be a kind of odd poetic volume. For one, you can easily tell that he's also a novelist. His style of writing even in poems is narrative and reminiscent of prose. There's an introduction, a buildup, a climax, a resolution. There are many complete sentences where fragments could have sufficed -- clever images cluttered by too many articles, prepositions, and other words that build the connective tissue of prose writing, but (if you listen to University professors, anyhow) should not claim a spot in every line of a poem.
Then again, none of my Creative Writing professors or instructors were famous. As famous as a writer can be, anyway,
By the same token, his straightforward style makes his poems easy to read and enjoy. Alexie does not write difficult poetry for difficulty's sake, and for that he should be commended. Those who pick up Face may plow through it only to find they're finished reading almost too quickly, left wanting more, which is the clearest sign of a great writer. Nevertheless, in poems like "Comedy Is Simply a Funny Way of Being Serious" and "Vilify," Alexie feels the need to explain and expound upon his jokes with footnotes, which often maintain rhyming verse. His footnotes are usually funny, but done so often, they feel like a gimmick.
Luckily, Alexie pokes holes in his own tricks, making sure to check his ego by questioning his own writing at every turn. Take note, would-be writers. Humoring yourself can work wonders in endearing yourself to readers.
11/07/09 Update: I forgot to mention this when I first posted . . . You can also read my academic essay on Alexie's "The Toughest Indian in the World," if you're into that sort of thing.