War Dances

( 6 )


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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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.


"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: 129,625
  • 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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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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    Posted July 2, 2010

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