The Toughest Indian in the World

by Sherman Alexie
ISBN: 0802138004

Finding new-to-me authors I enjoy is always a kick; finding new-to-me authors who are prolific and still publishing is even better. Which is to say that even though this the first of Alexie’s books I’ve read, it won’t be the last.

This collection of short stories is populated by characters who sound like real people. Alexie covers all the big topics — sex, love, fear, identity — without once stepping onto a soapbox. Instead, he has his characters cry, cheat, fight, dream, and ask questions. They pick up hitchhikers (only if they’re Indian), take standardized tests as if they are going off to battle, hold up folks for all the money they can spare, set snow on fire, and take dying, footless fathers on a road trip.

Alexie’s stories are alive and different. He does modern horror (“The Sin Eaters”), dabbles in future history (“Dear John Wayne”), and for him these are just other ways of telling true stories about people (each of the nine titles in the book). From the first line of the first story, he lets us know what kind of range he’ll be playing with:

Regarding love, marriage, and sex, both Shakespeare and Sitting Bull knew the only truth: treaties get broken.

Though he only asks it outright in the last story (“One Good Man”) Alexie is always grappling with “What is an Indian?” This leads to many other questions — what is being a good partner, what is falling in love, what does it mean to have your heart broken, what are you doing with your life?

I loved these stories because in them Alexie pokes around the messy lives of people who I always believed in, wheher or not I liked them. They chew a few Altoids because they think they’ll be kissing soon; their sex lives are unexpected but not really shocking; they feud with and without speaking; when they fall in love whether or not they are loved back isn’t the whole story, because the wet throbbing in everyone’s chest goes on the same.

Highly recommended.

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