On January 23, 2000, Alexie wrote in the Los Angeles Times a scathing review of Ian Frazier’s nonfiction travel log memoir On the Rez. Alexie writes, “Frazier’s formal use of ‘the rez’ marks him as an outsider eager to portray himself as an insider, as a writer with a supposedly original story to tell and as a white man who is magically unlike all other white men in his relationship to American Indians.” Alexie is probably more similar to Frazier than Alexie would like to believe though. I thoroughly enjoyed Alexie’s Reservation Blues. That being said, Reservation Blues is full of every stereotype and American Indian trope one can imagine: poverty, magic, drunk Indians, and sober Indians that are afraid to get drunk, and themes of loss. Those stereotypes doesn’t make the book bad. Alexie adds flare—a talking guitar, screaming horses, and nightmares—but certainly those stereotypes also do not make the story unique or original; it makes it commercial genre.
Like a steamy romance—you as the reader know the protagonist is going to eventually hook up with the sexy dude that has his shirt off on the front cover because that’s the pay-off, why you bought the book in the first place. And just as you can predict what’s going to happen in a romance, you know Reservation Blues will end badly. You read enough Native American literature, and come to expect this, but I’m also thinking of The Woman Who Owned the Shadows by Paula Gunn Allen and Winter in the Blood by James Welch that nicely complicate the American Indian stereotype. The characters are not flat: they do not tell stories because that is what Indians do; nor do they drink alcohol because that is what Indians do; nor are they just poor because that is what Indians are. The Woman Who Owned, an in-depth character study, is stream of consciousness at its best, harkening back to Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying, or perhaps Stein’s Melanctha. Winter in the Blood is a wonderful disjointed mess comparable to Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction.
And yeah, Reservation Blues is genre fiction. This, I feel, is in no way an insult to Alexie or genre fiction, and especially it is not an insult to Native American literature. Commercial genre fiction serves a purpose, and how many people would not be exposed to Native American thought without Alexie? I know I certainly would not have—the first Native American writing I’ve ever read was in high school: The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven. And it was a funny and sad story at sixteen. At forty-something, it’s still a funny, sad story. And I’d read it again, and share it with friends.
On occasion, Alexie has quipped that his hydrocephalic causes him to walk erratically, “as if he were carrying the burden of his race on his shoulders” (Konigsberg). I know Alexie is joking, but he is not magically unlike all other Native Americans in his relationship to American Indians or even American whites. I’ve heard Alexie criticized in the past for leaving the reservation, abandoning his culture and ethnicity, becoming in effect the physical and reality-based embodiment of the rock band Coyote Springs, making himself a kind of outsider. On the Rez seems to be a struggle to situate Frazier’s own whiteness with his ambivalence toward the very existence of American Indians. As I’ve said elsewhere, Frazier might be suffering from white guilt, unable to admit as much, or at the least unaware of his attitudes, and after reading Reservation Blues, I’m left wondering too how much of his own self Alexie is aware of. Many of Alexie’s characters in Reservation Blues are unself-aware until it’s too late: Junior who commits suicide, Victor who remains in a drunken stupor, Father Arnold who is confused between his loyalties to God, the Catholic Church, and Checkers, Betty and Veronica who repeat over and over like a chorus line, “What are we doing here?” And Alexie seems to be asking that same question, but I don’t believe that question is solely in relation to the reservation, but to greater, wider concerns congruent with Big Mom’s ideology. It’s your choice.