March 13: “War Dances” by Sherman Alexie

Story366 continues on today with me examining a story by Sherman Alexie. Before I move on to that, however, I should note a couple of things about the blog.

Since Spring Break! Week at Story366 ended yesterday, I now face the task of returning to posts that don’t place me in an old Buick, with a bunch of college guys, drinking my ass off and making poor decisions (leading to hilarious results). Those were fun posts, and there were nine of them, and they made it easy to start writing every day: Detailing what happened to me and Jimmy D and Cornhole and Three-balls was an entranceway into the story discussions, making it possible to sit down and write something even if I didn’t know what I was going to write. What couldn’t happen on a crazy car trip? The details of the trip served as intros, like that freshman comp student searching for the right way to start the essay about school uniforms or university parking structures. That student could start with an anecdote—their own school uniform story or how they can never find parking on campus; or a fact: “98 percent of students who don’t wear uniforms become meth-addicted and pregnant by 14”; a quote, pulled from an Internet quote—excuse me, quotation—site: “Horace once said that a brisk walk from your Hyundai to your chem lab builds character.”; or, most cliché of all, a definition: “Webster’s defines ‘uniform’ as the everyday, the expected.” When I taught composition, I always listed these possibilities, on the board, in handouts, etc., before the first paper, and on the first day a new paper was assigned, reminded them of these techniques, as go-to and overused as they were. They made for solid three-page essay openings, and the better the student, the better they could employ these approaches, the more seamless they would feel when attached to their equally formulaic essays.

Now that I’m done with spring break, expecting to write “normal” posts for the next few weeks—I’ll do daily AWP updates from LA starting at the end of the month—I need to think of interesting way to segue into story discussions. I’ve gotten a lot of feedback on the intros to those discussions, my little essays about myself, my connection to the books/authors, whatever I come up with, and really, that’s the challenging aspect of Story366. My original plan, before starting out, was to read one story, write a quick summary/reaction, and post, more of my own journal than a blog, than a communication between myself and an audience. Now, though, the project has evolved into me reading several stories from a book—to get a feel for the author and collection, as well as the story in question—and for me to include these pieces of introductory material. It’s a better project, for sure, and at the end of the year, I’ll be glad I did it. I already am. But in case you’re wondering where Spring Break! Week comes from, why I’d venture down such a path, it’s all for the blog. To make it better. To make it worth reading (I hope).

That said, I was thrilled to read Sherman Alexie’s collection War Dances for today, as it’s been a while since I’ve read any Alexie, a major American author and artist. I know him as a fiction writer, but he’s also filmmaker and a poet (though I admit I didn’t know he was such a major poet until that Best American Poetry scandal emerged last year and he was the editor; my thought throughout all that was “Wait, Sherman Alexie’s a poet? As in, enough of a poet to edit a BAP?”) and an essayist and children’s book writer and surely a bunch of other things I don’t know about, too (“Wait, Sherman Alexie writes all the Jeopardy! Clues?!”). I love The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven and taught that book several times, and also enjoyed Ten Little Indians and Reservation Blues. But it’s been a while since I’ve read anything, and like always on Story366, it’s good to catch up (though War Dances is already seven years old).

“War Dances,” the title story, is one of my favorite Alexie pieces. It’s a longish story for Alexie, thirty-six pages, and in that span, Alexie is able to not only fully develop his unnamed protagonist/narrator, but also include a lot of backstory, some diversions, and a few interesting structural choices, such as some lists—one numbered, one alphabetized (not in alphabetical order, but using the alphabet to list, like with an outline)—and even a poem (War Dances, by the way, is half poetry, half short fiction, the only book I can think of that does this). The story is also told like an essay, a stylized monologue by the narrator who seems to just be reporting facts, and at one point, includes a scene where he’s interviewing someone for his book project. I don’t think “War Dances” is an essay, as in this story is Alexie’s actual life, but it reads like one and it felt genuine throughout. But it’s still a story.

The story is about mortality, about a man, at a certain age (forty-two, to be exact, my current age as I write this), who loses his hearing in one of his ears. He goes to a doctor to find out what’s gone wrong, and a whole history of medical issues come up. As a kid, he had hydrocephalus, fluid in his brain tissue that caused this and that, something he hadn’t thought of in years. He gets an MRI, anyway, and the doctors discover a meningioma, a small tumor between his brain and skull. It’s not necessarily and often isn’t cancerous—trying telling anyone that, including the narrator—but probably isn’t causing the hearing loss, which is just a coincidental side effect of having the hydrocephalus as a kid. He starts a steroid regimen to activate his hearing, but will face side effects like insomnia, weight gain, and irritability, problems the narrator already has.

So far, this story sounds really medical, like a first-season episode of ER, all technical jargon and less story. There’s story, though, too—remember, this is a long one—mainly about the generations of men the narrator starts thinking about, he himself now older and suddenly ill. A lot of scenes involve his father, especially his death from lifelong alcoholism, and there’s snippets about his paternal grandfather, who died in Japan, a highly decorated soldier, during World War II. The narrator also has sons of his own, and since his wife is on a trip with her own other in Rome—he has to deal with them while he’s getting tested, facing his own possible death. It’s a touching story about middle age, about family, about mortality, and combined with the intriguing structural and stylistic choices, I enjoyed “War Dances” a lot. And if you’ve been reading Story366, you know I’m a sucker for father-son stories more than any other kind. This one hits home more than most.

Of course, Alexie is not only one of America’s most prolific and important writers, but he’s also one of our major Native American writers, and everything he writes (that I’ve read) certainly involves contemporary Native themes, characters, and settings. “War Dances” is no exception, and I’m always appreciative of Alexie’s work because it’s a perspective, always rendered straight-forwardly, that I don’t get enough of. I saw Alexie speak on Native American issues once at Bowling Green and it was really eye-opening and informative, a point of view I’d never really been exposed to. And that’s the real strength of diversity missions, to inform. In that way, I feel like Alexie has been my best window into these stories, histories, and people.

Story366 has been a tremendous project for me. I’m glad to read more Sherman Alexie, and am a bit sorry to take so much of this post up with my schtick on intros. But now I’ve done my intros intro, so that’s used up. Tomorrow, I just might have to concoct another adventure. Who knows, by the end of the year, I might be the only man on Mars, growing food and fighting nuclear storms, and that’s how I’ll lead into a George Saunders story. I hope you stick around to find out.