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Originally published Sunday, October 4, 2009 at 12:03 AM

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Book review

"War Dances": Identity, love and longing, the Sherman Alexie way

Seattle Times book editor Mary Ann Gwinn reviews Sherman Alexie's short-story and poem collection, "War Dances," which explores identity, love and longing with his trademark mix of comedy, tragedy and tenderness.

Seattle Times book editor

Author appearance

Sherman Alexie

The author of "War Dances" will read at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday at Town Hall Seattle, 1119 Eighth Ave. in Seattle. Co-sponsored by the Elliott Bay Book Co. Tickets are $5; available at Elliott Bay, via www.brownpapertickets.com, or by calling 800-838-3006. For more information on this event call Elliott Bay at 206-624-6600 or go to www.elliottbaybook.com.

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"War Dances"

by Sherman Alexie

Grove Press, 209 pp., $23

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.

"War Dances," the Seattle author's first book-length work that includes fiction since he won the 2007 National Book Award for his young adult novel "The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian," collects 23 stories, poems, and call-and-response sequences. Topics: love, the hazards of love and the inevitability of betrayal, as well as Indian stereotypes, race relations, and the corrupting nature of success.

In one poem Alexie, now a parent, looks at his relationship with his children through the lens of his own childhood on the Spokane Indian reservation. Here's "After Building the Lego Star Wars Ultimate Death Star":

How many planets do you want to destroy?

Don't worry, Daddy, this is just a big toy,

And there is nothing more fun than making noise.

My sons, when I was a boy, I threw dirt clods

And snow grenades stuffed with hidden rocks, and fought

Enemies — other Indian boys — who thought,

Like me, that joyful war turned us into gods.

This bittersweet poem precedes "War Dances," the title story and the strongest in the collection (and the only collection element to have been published previously, in the August 2009 New Yorker). The narrator, battling a mysterious partial deafness, sits with his father in the lonely hall of a hospital after surgery on his father's feet.

His father is cold. His son asks for an extra blanket and is put off by the work-worn nurse. Alexie imagines what she must be thinking: "She was a nurse, an educated woman, not a damn housekeeper ... she knew she was supposed to be compassionate, but my father, an alcoholic, diabetic Indian with terminally damaged kidneys, had just endured an incredibly expensive surgery for what? So he could ride his motorized wheelchair to the bar and win bets by showing off his disfigured foot?"

Then the Indian stereotype is stood on its head, as the son tracks down another Indian family sequestered in the hospital in search of a real, warm blanket and finds real, warm kindness:

"So you want to borrow a blanket from us? ... You're stereotyping your own damn people."

"I know."

"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."

In "The Ballad of Paul Nonetheless" Paul, an entrepreneur, pop-music addict and wayward husband, spends a lot of time in airports. He keeps running into (and lusting after) a devastatingly attractive woman in a pair of red Pumas. As his fantasy mushrooms, his own marriage deteriorates, and the Marvin Gaye Jr. soundtrack in his head mocks his choices:

What's going on?

What's going on?

What's going on?

"The Senator's Son" is a less successful story, told in the voice of the son of a United States senator (this is certainly fiction; the senator, from Seattle, is a Republican). Alexie affectingly portrays the son's confusion and anger as he grapples with the news that his best friend is gay. But the morally upright senator's about-face into lying and deception feels melodramatic and forced.

But "Salt," in which a young newspaper writer is assigned the obituary of the obituary editor, reads like an authentic dispatch from the author's yesterday. Everything feels true — the editor in chief, "a bucket of pizza and beer tied to a broomstick," and Lois, "that rarest of holy people, the secular and chaste nun " ...

"But you, Lois, you were never afraid of death, were you?" says the mourning narrator. "You laughed and played. And you honored the dead with your brief and serious prayers."

And if the poem "Ode for Pay Phones" doesn't take you back your pre-cellphone youth — well, maybe you didn't have one:

... God, I miss standing in the mosquito dark

At this or that pay phone. I wish

That I could find one

And call back

All that

I

Loved.

Mary Ann Gwinn: 206-464-2357 or mgwinn@seattletimes.com.

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