[Book Review] “War Dances” by Sherman Alexie

Overview:

I don’t read as often as I’d like to. To be honest I’m one of those obnoxious a-holes who spends approximately 3 weeks out of the year reading, and the other 49 bragging about how smart I am for finishing a book or two.

That being said, even if I read a book a day, I cannot imagine I would discover a writer whose work I would find more engaging than Sherman Alexie’s. His emotion rich stories of the modern-day lives of Native Americans have always made it to the top of my admittedly small “must read” list, and he’s in top form with War Dances, his latest short-story collection.

Review:

War Dances is a collection of stories, poems and interludes about conflicted people in conflicting situations, both of a personal and universal nature. Some stories are funny, some of them are sad, many of them are both and, most importantly, they are all engaging. Nearly every word sparkles with a strong enough emotional wallop to cold cock even the most grizzled readers.

Alexie’s greatest talent is his ability to find a perfect balance in polar opposite story themes, without compromising the integrity of his work. He balances laugh-out-loud moments (“men and pornography are like plants and sunshine. To me, porn is photosynthesis,” he writes in the title story) with very serious material, (isolation, death, hate mongering, etc.) without any of the stunning transitions ever seeming forced or contrived. He isn’t a humorist making vein attempts to pull our heartstrings or a serious writer senselessly trying to ease the tension with misplaced humor. He somehow manages to fit everything together in a seamless way that has always left me bewildered and more than a little jealous.

War Dances is also fearsomely brave in the way it writes from the perspective of some very dark characters. “Breaking and Entering” deals with the aftermath of a violent altercation between a Spokane man and a black teenager, and ends with  the Spokane making a  brutally honest and surprising revelation about racial power in America, while “The Senator’s Son” is narrated by the son of a politician who lead a brutal assault on a group of homosexuals on nothing more than a whim.

These stories could either be loathsome or heavy handed in lesser hands, but as I mentioned above, they remain consistent throughout. Alexie is right down-the-middle in the way he presents this material, neither excusing or condemning his characters. He’s too smart a writer to serve up easy answers for complicated questions, and he wisely leaves the decisions of right and wrong up to the discretion of the reader.

The only complaint I have with War Dances is that it was too short. All told, there are only six full-length stories here, and with the poetry and interludes, it’s barely 200 pages long. Despite a very busy schedule (my Saved By The Bell: Seasons 1-4 DVDs weren’t just going to watch themselves, you know) I was still able to finish this book in less than a day. It’s not really a knock to say a writer left you wanting more, but I could have easily read 1,000 pages of this material, so I can’t help but wish there had been more content.

Final Words:

As an aspiring writer, I can’t think of anyone who more consistently makes me feel like a hack than Sherman Alexie, so for that I say goddamn you! But that anger will always be quickly subsided by the admiration and love I have for the emotional tapestry he is able to weave every time out.

Minor length issues aside, I don’t exaggerate in any way when I saw War Dances is fiction writing at its highest level. Alexie is one of the greatest writers we have in any realm and this just may be his crowning achievement. Not a single sentence is wasted, creating a book that is very focused, confident without being arrogant and above all, insightful. After reading all his previous novels/story collections, I have, on many occasions, thought Alexie wouldn’t be able to top himself, and yet he always seems to do so. If he has a better book in him than War Dances I simply cannot wait to read it.

Pros:

  • Funny
  • Insightful
  • Challenging
  • It basically succeeds on every imaginable level of story telling.

Cons:

  • Too short
  • Never in a million years will I compose anything anywhere near this good

Final Score: 9.5/10 (Outstanding)

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