War Dances

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Overview

With bright insight into the minds of artists, entrepreneurs, fathers, husbands, and sons, Sherman Alexie populates his stories with ordinary men on the brink of exceptional change. In the tour-de-force title story, a son remembers his father slowly dying a "natural Indian death" from alcohol and diabetes, just as he learns that he himself may have a brain tumor. With "The Ballad of Paul Nonetheless," Alexie dissects a vintage clothing store owner's failing marriage and his subsequent courtship of a Puma-clad ...

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War Dances

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Overview

With bright insight into the minds of artists, entrepreneurs, fathers, husbands, and sons, Sherman Alexie populates his stories with ordinary men on the brink of exceptional change. In the tour-de-force title story, a son remembers his father slowly dying a "natural Indian death" from alcohol and diabetes, just as he learns that he himself may have a brain tumor. With "The Ballad of Paul Nonetheless," Alexie dissects a vintage clothing store owner's failing marriage and his subsequent courtship of a Puma-clad stranger in various airports across the country. And "Breaking and Entering" recounts a film editor's fateful confrontation with an adolescent who forcibly enters his house to steal his DVD collection.

Winner of the 2010 PEN/Faulkner Award

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Editorial Reviews

Jan Stuart
Alexie's appealing collection of short stories, poems and self-interrogations opens with an attempted murder and closes with an epitaph. Mortality is much on the mind of this puckish writer, who continues to sift common truths through the sieve of his Indian identity, albeit with the alacrity of a man barreling away from his youth.
—The New York Times
Publishers Weekly
From National Book Award–winner Alexie comes a new collection of stories, poems, question and answer sequences, and hybrids of all three and beyond. In a penetrating voice that mixes humor with anger, Alexie pointedly asks, “If it is true that children pay for the sins of their fathers, then is it also true that fathers pay for the sins of their children?” Many of the stories revolve around the complexities of fatherhood; in the title story, the Native American narrator recalls his alcoholic father's death as he confronts his own mortality, and “The Ballad of Paul Nonetheless” is the tale of an eccentric vintage clothing salesman whose sexual attraction to his wife fades following the birth of their children. The collection also contains stirring defenses of artistic integrity; “Fearful Symmetry” is an incisive account of working as a young screenwriter for a Hollywood studio, and the poem “Ode to Mix Tapes” endorses hard work as the key ingredient behind any creation. Alexie unfurls highly expressive language, and while at times his jokes bomb and the characters' anger can feel forced, overall this is a spiritedly provocative array of tragic comedies. (Oct.)
Kirkus Reviews
From prolific Alexie (Face, 2009, etc.), a collection of stories, poems and short works that defy categorization. It's wildly uneven: A few pieces drawn from his experiences as a member of the Spokane tribe rank with the author's best, but much of what surrounds them feels like filler. Of the 23 selections, the longest and best is the 36-page title story. Sixteen chapters, some as short as two paragraphs, connect the dots between a hospitalized father's fatal alcoholism and the nonmalignant brain tumor of his son, a 41-year-old writer accused in one hilarious incident of subjecting another Indian to racist stereotyping. Alexie frequently uses plainspoken language in first-person narratives to deal with ethical ambiguities-"to find a moral center," as he writes in "Breaking and Entering." That tale shows the narrator, a film editor, editing the facts to fit his story, only to feel victimized by the media's editing of an incident that changes his life. Other pieces don't work as well. "The Senator's Son" is a cliche-riddled, credulity-straining parable of forgiveness concerning Republican hypocrisy and violent homophobia. "Fearful Symmetry" teases the reader with a protagonist whose name (Sherwin Polatkin) and description ("a hot young short-story writer and poet and first-time screenwriter") both suggest an authorial stand-in, yet it has nothing more interesting to say about blurring the distinction between memoir and fiction than to ask, "What is lying but a form of storytelling?" "The Ballad of Paul Nothingness" ambitiously attempts to encompass the mysteries of desire, a critique of capitalism and the power of popular music. The latter also provides inspiration for "Ode to MixTapes," the collection's best poem; most of the other verses are slapdash and singsong. The author's considerable talent is only intermittently in evidence here. Author tour to New York, Washington, D.C., Chicago, Denver, Phoenix, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Portland, Ore., Seattle. Agent: Nancy Stauffer/Nancy Stauffer Associates
From the Publisher
“Sherman Alexie is not a finicky writer. He is often messy and in-your-face in a way that can make you laugh (or shudder) when you least expect to. . . . War Dances is Alexie’s fiercely freewheeling collection of stories and poems about the tragicomedies of ordinary lives.”—O, the Oprah Magazine

“Alexie has a wry, subversive sensibility. . . . The structure [in War Dances] is sophisticated yet playful, a subtle way to bring lightness to heavy topics such as senility, bigotry, cancer, and loneliness. . . . A mix tape of a book, with many voices, pieces of different length, shifting rhythms, an evolving story.”—Carolyn Kellogg, Los Angeles Times

“Sherman Alexie mixes up comedy and tragedy, shoots it through with tenderness, then delivers with a provocateur’s don’t-give-a-damn flourish. He’s unique, and his new book, War Dances, is another case in point.”—Mary Ann Gwinn, Seattle Times

“Few other contemporary writers seem willing to deal with issues of race, class, and sexuality as explicitly as Alexie . . . [“War Dances” is] a virtuoso performance of wit and pathos, a cultural and familial critique and a son’s quiet, worthless scream against the night as his father expires . . . [that] reminds me of the early 20th Century master of the short form Akutagawa Riyunosuke. . . . Yet again Sherman Alexie has given us a hell of a ride.”—Anthony Swofford, Barnes & Noble.com

“Alexie’s works are piercing yet rueful. He writes odes to anguished pay-phone calls, to boys who would drive through blizzards to see a girl, to couples who need to sit together on airplane flights even though the computer thinks otherwise. . . . [A] marvelous collection.”—Connie Ogle, Miami Herald

“Sherman Alexie is a rare creature in contemporary literature, a writer who can make you laugh as easily as he can make you cry. He’s also frighteningly versatile, as a poet, screenwriter, short story author, and novelist.”—Ben Fulton, The Salt Lake Tribune

“Remarkable . . . Wonderful . . . [Alexie’s] work reveals both the light and dark within native American life. A paradox in his writing is that you can be in the middle of delighted laughter when he will hit you with a sentence so true to the core of a character’s pain that you suck your breath or are startled to realize you are crying.”—Gale Zoe Garnett, The Globe and Mail

War Dances is maybe the most personal book Alexie has ever published, and it’s certainly one of his most readable. The closest thing to a historical precedent for this book is Palm Sunday, Kurt Vonnegut’s wildly entertaining self-described ‘autobiographical collage’ of anecdotes, fiction, reminiscences, and other work. . . . Each piece firmly builds on some part of the other, like the songs on a good mix tape. . . . The asymmetrical collection on display in War Dances works as a supremely gratifying reading experience.”—Paul Constant, The Stranger

“Alexie is a master storyteller whose prose is laced with metaphoric realities of life, mixed with triumph and tragedy. . . . War Dances is vintage Alexie . . . [and] should be savored. . . . Fans will not be disappointed.”—Levi Rickert, The Grand Rapids Press

“May be his best work yet . . . An odd grab bag of images, insights, and loose ends . . . yet each piece asks a similar set of questions: What’s the point of all this? If there is a point, what’s the point of that? And isn’t life really goddamn funny? . . . A book about searching.”—Mike Dumke, Chicago Reader

“Complex . . . Unpredictable . . . Thought-provoking.”—Michelle Peters, Winnipeg Free Press

“Beautiful . . . [Alexie] tells wryly amusing, bittersweet stories. . . . He makes you laugh, he makes you cry. Perfect reasons to read him.”—Frank Zoretich, Albuquerque Journal

“Penetrating . . . Alexie unfurls highly expressive language . . . [in] this spiritedly provocative array of tragic comedies.”—Publishers Weekly

“Encounter [Alexie’s work] once and you’ll never forget it.”—Library Journal

“Alexie is at his best in this collection of hilarious and touching stories.”—Geeta Sharma-Jensen, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

“[With War Dances], Sherman Alexie enhances his stature as a multitalented writer and an astute observer of life among Native Americans in the Pacific Northwest. . . . [An] edgy and frequently surprising collection.”—Harvey Freedenberg, Bookpage

Library Journal
National Book Award winner/New York Times best-selling author Alexie's (www.fallsapart.com) collection of stories, poems, and essays portrays a variety of characters dealing with difficult, often bittersweet situations. Alexie himself reads, with passion and sardonic humor. The strongest essays are those influenced by the author's own Native American heritage, especially the parts in which he channels his Spokane Indian father. Includes explicit language (notably, of the f**k variety); recommended for anyone who appreciates quality short fiction and nonfiction. [The Grove Pr. hc, which was published in 2009, won the 2010 PEN Faulkner Award for Fiction; the Grove pb is scheduled to be published in August.—Ed.]—J. Sara Paulk, Fitzgerald-Ben Hill Cty. Lib., GA
The Barnes & Noble Review
I find it nearly impossible to dislike a Sherman Alexie story, or novel, or poem, or whatever he writes. And in the last15 or so years he has written quite a bit, a whole suitcase of books (four novels, three collections of short stories, and a dozen books of poems) -- checked luggage, not carry-on.

War Dances, which the writer and his publisher have refused to categorize, comes across mostly like a story collection: there are five longer stories, about a half dozen shorter fictions, and twice that number of poems. I know little of the writer's biography, other than that he's Native American from the Pacific Northwest, but a number of the stories seem to me to scream out from the rowdy autobiographical seats in the fiction stadium. Not that it matters: Alexie writes with equal insight about a privileged white ne'er-do-well senator's son and a Native American watching his father die slowly.

That latter scenario is the basis for the multi-part story that gives the book its title. It's a virtuoso performance of wit and pathos, a cultural and familial critique and a son's quiet, worthless scream against the night as his father expires. The focus of the tale zips around from the ailing and alcoholic father, to the narrator and son's own newly found tumor, to the small dramas of family life: the narrator's wife is on vacation in Italy with her mother and he must take care of his sons while contemplating his own mortality. A childhood case of hydrocephalus has him convinced that now, as an adult, "the obese, imperialistic water demon that nearly killed me when I was six months old," has returned.

In "War Dances," Alexie works his deepest critique of his own Native American culture. The longest section of the story, titled "Blankets," takes place entirely in the hospital. It opens: "After the surgeon cut off my father's right foot -- no, half of my father's right foot -- and three toes from the left, I sat with him in the recovery room." The father is cold and needs a blanket and the son sets off on a mini quest. After bugging a charge nurse he wryly notes, "No, when people asked for an extra blanket, they were asking for a time machine." But an extra hospital "blanket," it turns out, won't do it, because it's not much of a blanket: "It was more like the world's largest coffee filter."

And so the quest continues through the hospital. "And then I saw him, another Native man, leaning against a wall near the gift shop." After positing that the man could be Asian, or Mexican, he approaches: The men exchange tribal information and jokes about ex-wives. The stranger tells the narrator that his sister is having a baby (I won't spoil the dark joke that comes here) and explains that his father has started a birth tradition for the family that is a thousand years old, "But that's bullshit. He just made it up to impress himself." Our narrator eventually gains the gumption to ask the stranger for a blanket and a comedy of culture ensues.

"So, you want to borrow a blanket from us?" the man asked.

"Yeah"

"Because you thought some Indians would just happen to have some extra blankets lying around?"

This goes on a bit, the stranger accusing our narrator of being racist and of stereotyping his own people. The narrator, as it happens agrees: and the stranger says, "But damn if we don't have a room full of Pendleton blankets. New ones. Jesus, you'd think my sister was having, like, a dozen babies."

This combination of genius and tenderness of Alexie come through most clearly after he's thrown a few darts at "charlatans, men and women who pretended -- hell, who might have come to believe -- that they were holy." Because then our narrator sits down with his father, his father who is dying from "Vodka straight up with a nostalgia chaser," and he sings a healing song with his father, who is now bundled up in the borrowed blanket: "My father could sing beautifully. I wondered if it was proper for a man to sing a healing song for himself." And the old grouchy charge nurse looks at the two men and smiles. The narrator says, "Sometimes after all of these years she could still be surprised by her work. She still marveled at the infinite and ridiculous faith of other people." This ridiculous faith is not Native American, or Christian; it's untitled, rather simply and powerfully human.

All this transpires in a style that is tough to categorize (another point in Alexie's favor), but in "War Dances" and a few of the other stories here he reminds me of the early-20th-century master of the short form Akutagawa Riyunosuke. Honestly, on the second and third reading of "War Dances" the story seems a bit of a mess, but a fine mess it is. It's as though the scaffolding has fallen away from a building but through its falling has been rearranged into a masterful post modern statue.

Few other contemporary writers seem willing to deal with issues of race, class, and sexuality as explicitly as Alexie. In "Breaking and Entering," a Native American man who is a freelance film editor beats to death, with a bat, an African-American teenager who has broken into his basement and is stealing DVDs. The local media and the young man's family identify the narrator of the story as white. "I am not a white man," he informs us:

I am an enrolled member of the Spokane Tribe of Indians. Oh, I don't look like an Indian, or at least not typically Indian. Some folks assume I'm a little bit Italian or Spanish or perhaps Middle Eastern. Most folks think I'm just another white guy who tans well.

While writing about race Alexie continually changes the dialogue, mixes up the play list, and writes his way into sobering terrain where the reader must recognize that race still dictates matters of culture and class, especially among the poor and working class.

I can understand why some readers might have difficulty with some of Alexie's work. He never answers any questions, he never tells the reader how to think; rather, he shows how others think and behave in both flawed and beautiful ways. The gay-basher in "Senator's Son" is an extremely distasteful character, but Alexie seems to suggest that even this violent man might be forgiven and that his violence was born from a complicated upbringing that ranked a father's ambition before a son's well-being. But regardless of the happenings in the story, Alexie leaves this verdict largely to the reader.

Occasionally the strengths of Alexie's prose and characterization are bogged down by storytelling that resembles a clunky and simple teleplay, as in the early pages of "The Ballad of Paul Nonetheless," but even here he redeems himself with a surprising and thrilling descent for the main character, and the story ends on a haunting note.

My favorite of the shorter fictions here is "Cathecism," an absurd Q&A of the sort that the author himself might one day have suffered through, with questions such as: "Do you think religious ceremony is an effective treatment for grief?" The oblique answer involves a quilt the narrator's mother made from "second- and third- and fourthhand blue jeans" from various secondhand shops, and his sister's final judgment: "There's been a lot of ass in those pants. This is a blanket of asses."

The metaphysics of this statement is a pleasure to ponder. In the end, what is life, what is literature, but a blanket of asses? Writers' asses in chairs making stories, readers asses' in chairs, coming along for the ride, keeping death and banality momentarily at bay. Yet again Sherman Alexie has given us a hell of a ride. --Anthony Swofford

Anthony Swofford is the author of Jarhead, a memoir of his experiences serving in the Marine Corps in Iraq during the first Gulf War, and Exit A, a novel. He is contributor to numerous publications, including The New York Times, Harper's, Men's Journal, and The Iowa Review.

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780802144898
  • Publisher: Grove/Atlantic, Inc.
  • Publication date: 8/3/2010
  • Pages: 208
  • Sales rank: 145,252
  • Product dimensions: 5.40 (w) x 8.10 (h) x 0.70 (d)

Meet the Author

Sherman Alexie
A National Book Award-winning author, poet, and filmmaker, Sherman has been named one of Granta's Best Young American Novelists and has been lauded by The Boston Globe as "an important voice in American literature." He is one of the most well known and beloved literary writers of his generation, with works such as The Long Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven and Reservation Blues and has received numerous awards and citations, including the PEN/Malamud Award for Fiction and the Lila Wallace-Reader's Digest Award.
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Read an Excerpt

War Dances


By Sherman Alexie

OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA

Copyright © 2009 Sherman Alexie
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-4804-5722-5



CHAPTER 1

    The Limited

    I SAW A MAN swerve his car
    And try to hit a stray dog,
    But the quick mutt dodged
    Between two parked cars

    And made his escape.
    God, I thought, did I just see
    What I think I saw?
    At the next red light,

    I pulled up beside the man
    And stared hard at him.
    He knew that'd I seen
    His murder attempt,

    But he didn't care.
    He smiled and yelled loud
    Enough for me to hear him
    Through our closed windows:

    "Don't give me that face
    Unless you're going to do
    Something about it.
    Come on, tough guy,

    What are you going to do?"
    I didn't do anything.
    I turned right on the green.
    He turned left against traffic.

    I don't know what happened
    To that man or the dog,
    But I drove home
    And wrote this poem.

    Why do poets think
    They can change the world?
    The only life I can save
    Is my own.

CHAPTER 2

Breaking and Entering


BACK IN COLLEGE, WHEN I was first LEARNING how to edit film—how to construct a scene—my professor, Mr. Baron, said to me, "You don't have to show people using a door to walk into a room. If people are already in the room, the audience will understand that they didn't crawl through a window or drop from the ceiling or just materialize. The audience understands that a door has been used—the eyes and mind will make the connection—so you can just skip the door."

Mr. Baron, a full-time visual aid, skipped as he said, "Skip the door." And I laughed, not knowing that I would always remember his bit of teaching, though of course, when I tell the story now, I turn my emotive professor into the scene-eating lead of a Broadway musical.

"Skip the door, young man!" Mr. Baron sings in my stories—my lies and exaggerations—skipping across the stage with a top hat in one hand and a cane in the other. "Skip the door, old friend! And you will be set free!"

"Skip the door" is a good piece of advice—a maxim, if you will—that I've applied to my entire editorial career, if not my entire life. To state it in less poetic terms, one would say, "An editor must omit all unnecessary information." So in telling you this story—with words, not film or video stock—in constructing its scenes, I will attempt to omit all unnecessary information. But oddly enough, in order to skip the door in telling this story, I am forced to begin with a door: the front door of my home on Twenty-seventh Avenue in the Central District neighborhood of Seattle, Washington.

One year ago, there was a knock on that door. I heard it, but I did not rise from my chair to answer. As a freelance editor, I work at home, and I had been struggling with a scene from a locally made film, an independent. Written, directed, and shot by amateurs, the footage was both incomplete and voluminous. Simply stated, there was far too much of nothing. Moreover, it was a love scene—a graphic sex scene, in fact—and the director and the producer had somehow convinced a naive and ambitious local actress to shoot the scene full frontal, graphically so. This was not supposed to be a pornographic movie; this was to be a tender coming-of-age work of art. But it wasn't artistic, or not the kind of art it pretended to be. This young woman had been exploited—with her permission, of course—but I was still going to do my best to protect her.

Don't get me wrong. I'm not a prude—I've edited and enjoyed sexual and violent films that were far more graphic—but I'd spotted honest transformative vulnerability in that young actress's performance. Though the director and the producer thought she'd just been acting—had created her fear and shame through technical skill—I knew better. And so, by editing out the more gratuitous nudity and focusing on faces and small pieces of dialogue—and by paying more attention to fingertips than to what those fingertips were touching—I was hoping to turn a sleazy gymnastic sex scene into an exchange that resembled how two people in new love might actually touch each other.

Was I being paternalistic, condescending, and hypocritical? Sure. After all, I was being paid to work with exploiters, so didn't that mean I was also being exploited as I helped exploit the woman? And what about the young man, the actor, in the scene? Was he dumb and vulnerable as well? Though he was allowed—was legally bound—to keep his penis hidden, wasn't he more exploited than exploiter? These things are hard to define. Still, even in the most compromised of situations, one must find a moral center.

But how could I find any center with that knocking on the door? It had become an evangelical pounding: Bang, bang, bang, bang! It had to be the four/four beat of a Jehovah's Witness or a Mormon. Bang, cha, bang, cha! It had to be the iambic pentameter of a Sierra Club shill or a magazine sales kid.

Trust me, nobody interesting or vital has ever knocked on a front door at three in the afternoon, so I ignored the knocking and kept at my good work. And, sure enough, my potential guest stopped the noise and went away. I could hear feet pounding down the stairs and there was only silence—or, rather, the relative silence of my urban neighborhood.

But then, a few moments later, I heard a window shatter in my basement. Is shatter too strong a verb? I heard my window break. But break seems too weak a verb. As I visualize the moment—as I edit in my mind—I add the sound track, or rather I completely silence the sound track. I cut the sounds of the city—the planes overhead, the cars on the streets, the boats on the lake, the televisions and the voices and the music and the wind through the trees—until one can hear only shards of glass dropping onto a hardwood floor.

And then one hears—feels—the epic thump of two feet landing on that same floor.

Somebody—the same person who had knocked on my front door to ascertain if anybody was home, had just broken and entered my life.

Now please forgive me if my tenses—my past, present, and future—blend, but one must understand that I happen to be one editor who is not afraid of jump cuts—of rapid flashbacks and flash-forwards. In order to be terrified, one must lose all sense of time and place. When I heard those feet hit the floor, I traveled back in time—I de-evolved, I suppose—and became a primitive version of myself. I had been a complex organism—but I'd turned into a two-hundred-and-two pound one-celled amoeba. And that amoeba knew only fear.

Looking back, I suppose I should have just run away. I could have run out the front door into the street, or the back door onto the patio, or the side door off the kitchen into the alley, or even through the door into the garage—where I could have dived through the dog door cut into the garage and made my caninelike escape.

But here's the salt of the thing: though I cannot be certain, I believe that I was making my way toward the front door—after all, the front door was the only place in my house where I could be positive that my intruder was not waiting. But in order to get from my office to the front door, I had to walk past the basement door. And as I walked past the basement door, I spotted the baseball bat.

It wasn't my baseball bat. Now, when one thinks of baseball bats, one conjures images of huge slabs of ash wielded by steroid-fueled freaks. But that particular bat belonged to my ten-year-old son. It was a Little League bat, so it was comically small. I could easily swing it with one hand and had, in fact, often swung it one-handed as I hit practice grounders to the little second baseman of my heart, my son, my Maximilian, my Max. Yes, I am a father. And a husband. That is information you need to know. My wife, Wendy, and my son were not in the house. To give me the space and time I needed to finish editing the film, my wife had taken our son to visit her mother and father in Chicago; they'd been gone for one week and would be gone for another. So, to be truthful, I was in no sense being forced to defend my family, and I'd never been the kind of man to defend his home, his property, his shit. In fact, I'd often laughed at the news footage of silly men armed with garden hoses as they tried to defend their homes from wildfires. I always figured those men would die, go to hell, and spend the rest of eternity having squirt-gun fights with demons.

So with all that information in mind, why did I grab my son's baseball bat and open the basement door? Why did I creep down the stairs? Trust me, I've spent many long nights awake, asking myself those questions. There are no easy answers. Of course, there are many men—and more than a few women—who believe I was fully within my rights to head down those stairs and confront my intruder. There are laws that define—that frankly encourage—the art of self-defense. But since I wasn't interested in defending my property, and since my family and I were not being directly threatened, what part of my self could I have possibly been defending?

In the end, I think I wasn't defending anything at all. I'm an editor—an artist—and I like to make connections; I am paid to make connections. And so I wonder. Did I walk down those stairs because I was curious? Because a question had been asked (Who owned the feet that landed on my basement floor?) and I, the editor, wanted to discover the answer?

So, yes, slowly I made my way down the stairs and through the dark hallway and turned the corner into our downstairs family room—the man cave, really, with the big television and the pool table—and saw a teenaged burglar. I stood still and silent. Standing with his back to me, obsessed with the task—the crime—at hand, he hadn't yet realized that I was in the room with him.

Let me get something straight. Up until that point I hadn't made any guesses as to the identity of my intruder. I mean, yes, I live in a black neighborhood—and I'm not black— and there had been news of a series of local burglaries perpetrated by black teenagers, but I swear none of that entered my mind. And when I saw him, the burglar, rifling through my DVD collection and shoving selected titles into his backpack—he was a felon with cinematic taste, I guess, and that was a strangely pleasing observation—I didn't think, There's a black teenager stealing from me. I only remembering being afraid and wanting to make my fear go away.

"Get the fuck out of here!" I screamed. "You fucking fucker!"

The black kid was so startled that he staggered into my television—cracking the screen— and nearly fell before he caught his balance and ran for the broken window. I could have—would have—let him make his escape, but he stopped and turned back toward me. Why did he do that? I don't know. He was young and scared and made an irrational decision. Or maybe it wasn't irrational at all. He'd slashed his right hand when he crawled through the broken window, so he must have decided the opening with its jagged glass edges was not a valid or safe exit—who'd ever think a broken window was a proper entry or exit—so he searched for a door. But the door was behind me. He paused, weighed his options, and sprinted toward me. He was going to bulldoze me. Once again, I could have made the decision to avoid conflict and step aside. But I didn't. As that kid ran toward me I swung the baseball bat with one hand.

I often wonder what would have happened if that bat had been made of wood. When Max and I had gone shopping for bats, I'd tried to convince him to let me buy him a wooden one, an old-fashioned slugger, the type I'd used when I was a Little Leaguer. I've always been a nostalgic guy. But my son recognized that a ten-dollar wooden bat purchased at Target was not a good investment.

"That wood one will break easy," Max had said. "I want the lum-a-lum one."

Of course, he'd meant to say aluminum; we'd both laughed at his mispronunciation. And I'd purchased the lum-a-lum bat.

So it was a metal bat that I swung one-handed at the black teenager's head. If it had been cheap and wooden, perhaps the bat would have snapped upon contact and dissipated the force. Perhaps. But this bat did not snap. It was strong and sure, so when it made full contact with the kid's temple, he dropped to the floor and did not move.

He was dead. I had killed him.

I fell to my knees next to the kid, dropped my head onto his chest, and wept.

I don't remember much else about the next few hours, but I called 911, opened the door for the police, and led them to the body. And I answered and asked questions.

"Did he have a gun or knife?"

"I don't know. No. Well, I didn't see one."

"He attacked you first?"

"He ran at me. He was going to run me over."

"And that's when you hit him with the bat?"

"Yes. It's my son's bat. It's so small. I can't believe it's strong enough to—is he really dead?"

"Yes."

"Who is he?"

"We don't know yet."

His name was Elder Briggs. Elder: such an unusual name for anybody, especially a sixteen-year-old kid. He was a junior at Garfield High School, a B student and backup point guard for the basketball team, an average kid. A good kid, by all accounts. He had no criminal record—had never committed even a minor infraction in school, at home, or in the community—so why had this good kid broken into my house? Why had he decided to steal from me? Why had he made all the bad decisions that had led to his death?

The investigation was quick but thorough, and I was not charged with any crime. It was self-defense. But then nothing is ever clear, is it? I was legally innocent, that much is true, but was I morally innocent? I wasn't sure, and neither were a significant percentage of my fellow citizens. Shortly after the police held the press conference that exonerated me, Elder's family—his mother, father, older brother, aunts, uncles, cousins, friends, and priest—organized a protest. It was small, only forty or fifty people, but how truly small can a protest feel when you are the subject—the object—of that protest?

I watched the live coverage of the event. My wife and son, after briefly returning from Chicago, had only spent a few days with me before they fled back to her parents. We wanted to protect our child from the media. An ironic wish, considering that the media were only interested in me because I'd killed somebody else's child.

"The police don't care about my son because he's black," Elder's mother, Althea, said to a dozen different microphones and as many cameras. "He's just another black boy killed by a white man. And none of these white men care."

As Althea continued to rant about my whiteness, some clever producer—and his editor—cut into footage of me, the white man who owned a baseball bat, walking out of the police station as a free man. It was a powerful piece of editing. It made me look pale and guilty. But all of them—Althea, the other protesters, the reporters, producers, and editors—were unaware of one crucial piece of information: I am not a white man.

I am an enrolled member of the Spokane Tribe of Indians. Oh, I don't look Indian, or at least not typically Indian. Some folks assume I'm a little bit Italian or Spanish or perhaps Middle Eastern. Most folks think I'm just another white guy who tans well. And since I'd just spent months in a dark editing room, I was at my palest. But I grew up on the Spokane Indian Reservation, the only son of a mother and father who were also Spokane Indians who grew up on our reservation. Yes, both of my grandfathers had been half-white, but they'd both died before I was born.

I'm not trying to be holy here. I wasn't a traditional Indian. I didn't dance or sing powwow or speak my language or spend my free time marching for Indian sovereignty. And I'd married a white woman. One could easily mock my lack of cultural connection, but one could not question my race. That's not true, of course. People, especially other Indians, always doubted my race. And I'd always tried to pretend it didn't matter—I was confident about my identity—but it did hurt my feelings. So when I heard Althea Riggs misidentify my race—and watched the media covertly use editing techniques to confirm her misdiagnosis—I picked up my cell phone and dialed the news station.

"Hello," I said to the receptionist. "This is George Wilson. I'm watching your coverage of the protests and I must issue a correction."

"Wait, what?" the receptionist asked. "Are you really George Wilson?"

"Yes, I am."

"Hold on," she said. "Let me put you straight through to the producer."

So the producer took the call and, after asking a few questions to further confirm my identity, he put me on live. So my voice played over images of Althea Riggs weeping and wailing, of her screaming at the sky, at God. How could I have allowed myself to be placed into such a compromising position? How could I have been such an idiot? How could I have been so goddamn callous and self-centered?

"Hello, Mr. Wilson," the evening news anchor said. "I understand you have something you'd like to say."


(Continues...)

Excerpted from War Dances by Sherman Alexie. Copyright © 2009 Sherman Alexie. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents

"The Limited" 1

Breaking and Entering 3

"Go, Ghost, Go" 21

Bird-watching at Night 23

"After Building the Lego Star Wars Ultimate Death Star" 25

War Dances 27

"The Theology of Reptiles" 65

Catechism 67

"Ode to Small-town Sweethearts" 73

The Senator's Son 75

"Another Proclamation" 105

Invisible Dog on a Leash 107

"Home of the Braves" 113

The Ballad of Paul Nonetheless 115

"On Airplanes" 149

Big Bang Theory 153

"Ode for Pay Phones" 157

Fearful Symmetry 159

"Ode to Mix Tapes" 183

Roman Catholic Haiku 185

"Looking Glass" 187

Salt 189

"Food Chain" 209

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Customer Reviews

Average Rating 4.5
( 6 )
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Sort by: Showing all of 6 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted January 16, 2012

    Great For Entertainment.

    The book War Dances by Sherman Alexie is basically a group of short stories and poems. It simply discusses some American Indian Stereotypes such as characters with alcoholic fathers, Indians with blankets and singing elders. However, Sherman Alexie manages to rise above the stereotypes, as if it were just a fact of life. I really enjoyed this book because of how Sherman Alexie mixed together all of the short stories and poems which made me want to keep on flipping the pages, just like a mystery story. I would definitely recommend this book to a friend because of how well put together it is. Job well done Sherman Alexie.

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  • Posted May 10, 2010

    more from this reviewer

    I Also Recommend:

    Savor this one

    I have a feeling that Sherman Alexie would ever-so-slightly mock me for loving his work as much as I do. He probably has a story out there where he skewers the blond chick in the minvan, completely isolated from the world of his characters but in love with them just the same. In more than one instance, just when a character or story started to feel 'foreign' to me, Alexie would deftly pull me in. One standout is a supporting character's rant that he could 'shop the &!%$ out of Trader Joes.' To me that is the perfect example of how the truth of the human condition can be found in this collection of stories, switching from lighthearted humor to the effects of bad decisions and the pain of stereotypes on the psyche. This book is intelligent and artfully done-one of my favorites of the year.

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  • Posted January 12, 2010

    War Dances is a lovely positive book

    This is a surprising book. It has short stories, short stories that ring as autobiography, and poetry. They are wonderfully mingled. The one page poems are probably a great way to put modern verse in front of people who would never pick up a book of poetry. And oh, yes, there are some very funny passages..

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    Posted February 6, 2010

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    Posted December 14, 2009

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  • Anonymous

    Posted July 2, 2010

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