412Scott, February 4, 2012 (view all comments by 412Scott)
Next to works like Winter in the Blood or Ceremony, Alexie's scope keeps the same circular storytelling as most American Indian fiction but instead weaves a multitude of topics: blues music, the music industry, capitalism, Caucasian guilt, sexism, government and at least 10 other topics. This is both a feature and a fault of the novel. I do agree fully with the previous comment here about the shortcuts taken with the critique of Catholicism and the abuses so many have suffered at the hands of so many deeply flawed men that have fractured the public face and private trust of the Catholic Church. This novel could have kept both its social critiques, narrative overlaps, and welcome doses of humor and removed just a few loose motifs and themes. Instead, it stands certainly as an engaging 306 pages of American Indian fiction.
I first read this book as a very young girl, underneath my covers with a flashlight. And then about a year ago I had the chance to see Sherman Alexie speak at a community college--I went on a whim, not connecting who he was, but while there I realized he was the writer of a great deal of excellent poetry I revere and this book, Reservation Blues, that I had loved and allowed myself to live in as a little girl.
Browsing the Goodwill book section a few weeks later I found an old copy of this book and snapped it up, a very happy book-lobster. I re-read it after 10 years.
I hated it this time around. It wasn't the writing, the writing was the same boggling mind-trail Alexie is so excellent at revving through. It was a single phrase that slashed at me, the sentence was attributed to Big Mom, the wise character, Watcher, and strange Savior of the book, aimed at Victor, a victim of sexual abuse at the hands of a priest.
"...you should forgive the priest who hurt you when you were little...that poor man hasn't even forgiven himself yet."
I re-read that part and my mouth sort of fell open, and I felt betrayed by Alexie, who I felt didn't understand what he was doing when he wrote the book.
I realize that when someone writes a book they largely write for themselves and of their own experiences in a vicarious way. I am all too aware of how many Indians were raped by priests, and the deep anger alot of Indians have towards white and half-white people as a result of the genocides. I think the power of forgiveness is a wonderful tool for healing for SOME people. But not all.
I feel strange criticizing and hating this sentence. I want so badly back into the rest of the book, but am unable to step back in. I was locked out of his beautiful world with those words, because those words are used to hurt people in institutions of religion, used to silence and place the burden of guilt on victims of brutal sexual assault, and used to dumb down followers.
Forgiveness is a main theme in all of Alexie's writing, and I have come to expect this of him. I don't resent the theme as long as it is clearly separated from the abusive machinations of institution. Usually he manages. He fails here, slipping the theories in willy-nilly without a clue. I think he is trying to hit all the major problems Indians face in one book, and not having personally been raped in the church (which I am willing to state quantitatively based on the way he glibly throws around religious language and talks about Catholicism, a wonderful freedom that victims of CSA do not have) he fails here, and manages to pour salt on the wounds (albeit with such innocence and such a good heart that it hurts MORE for all its damned arrogant innocence).
Victor is not a well-fleshed out character and his abuse, his reactions to that abuse, is never delved into aside from the single event. There is no analyzation of his reactions. His "tough-guy" fasod mostly remains in place throughout, slipping to reveal the outlines of the soul beneath only a few times.
Alexie only seems to understand the full-on anger reaction to abuse, he doesn't understand the deep guilt that victims of CSA have, nor does he understand the type of pain in having a "safe" spirituality spout out a flat forgiveness line that rings in tune with the corporate rapists of religious institutions. (And so few are sorry. And if this priest were sorry, why didn't he try to make amends? Why didn't he pay for counseling? Why didn't he turn himself in? What's that? He cared about himself more? He had 60 more victims? He doesn't want to go to jail? He's narcissistic and can't stand the thought of not being God's right hand? Ah. Yes.)
Alexie had no right to fling these theories out in such disarray, in the mouth of someone looked up to as a God-figure. The character Big Mom fills is a vast one, so her dialogue had better be good. He was essentially speaking for God. Shame on him!
I generally mock reviews that say, "this book is bad because the theory is bad." Well, here I am, hating a book with excellent writing for bad theory.
Mr. Alexie, I like you and I'll make a deal here, I'll stay out of the sweat lodges and your spirituality if you'll stay away from my spirituality, and refrain from telling me my spiritual path.
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by Bill Ott, Booklist,
"Alexie mixes biting black humor, a healthy dose of magic, and sparkling lyricism to produce a remarkably powerful story with roots not only in Native American mythology, but also in the equally potent history of rock 'n' roll."
by Publishers Weekly,
"Hilarious but poignant, filled with enchantments yet dead-on accurate with regard to modern Indian life, this tour de force will leave readers wondering if Alexie himself hasn't made a deal with the Gentleman in order to do everything so well."
Sherman Alexie has been hailed as one of the best writers we have” (The Nation). Reservation Blues is his irresistibly stunning debut novel” (San Francisco Chronicle). One day legendary bluesman Robert Johnson appears on the Spokane Indian reservation, in flight from the devil and presumed long dead. When he passes his enchanted instrument to Thomas-Builds-the-Fire—storyteller, misfit, and musician—a magical odyssey begins that will take them from reservation bars to small-town taverns, from the cement trails of Seattle to the concrete canyons of Manhattan. This is a fresh, luxuriantly comic tale of power, tragedy, and redemption among contemporary Native Americans.
In this bestselling winner of the American Book Award, the life of Spokane Indian Thomas Builds-the-Fire irrevocably changes when blues legend Robert Johnson miraculously appears on his reservation and passes the misfit storyteller his enchanted guitar.
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