Having established his slot in the contemporary American canon with his 1993 collection The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven and the novel Reservation Blues (1995), Sherman Alexie’s Indian Killer finds its author at a point during his career in which he can attempt to exercise some of the literary clout his work thus far has earned him. The Alexie of 1996 is allowed the freedom to play with genre without fear of critical pigeonholing, a luxury not afforded to the Alexie of 1993 — or any first-book writer, for that matter. Accordingly, he gives us a hard-boiled crime novel which sets out to manipulate the line separating the popular from the literary while confronting the host of complications plaguing the relationship between American Indians and Americans of European ancestry.
On paper, Sherman Alexie’s Indian Killer sounds exceptionally promising: a deranged serial murderer dubbed “The Indian Killer” is on the lam in Seattle, scalping white men throughout the city and leaving a calling card of two crossed owl feathers at the scene of each gruesome murder. Such a foundation in the hands of a talent like Alexie suggests that the reader should expect both first-class genre writing as well as thoughtful observations on race relations in America. Unfortunately, what Indian Killer offers in its attempt to deliver such a novel is an uneven balance of genre and insight in which both halves compete in a shouting match with no clear winner.
Ultimately, Indian Killer‘s biggest problems lie with its characters. The novel is populated by static, two-dimensional stand-ins motivated by little save their respective ethnicities. One can’t help but get the feeling that Alexie cares little for and possibly even hates every last character in his novel; and, if their fully-fleshed personhood isn’t respected by Alexie, there is little hope that it will be respected by the reader. This creates a disconnect between the audience and the text which may be desirable in certain post-modern contexts but adds little value to a social novel which depends on its depiction of living, breathing people interacting in complicated ways which the reader can recognize as human.
In one of the novel’s many subplots, the young revolutionary Marie Polatkin repeatedly locks rhetorical horns with a laughable Literature professor whose Native American Lit class Marie finds offensive and fraudulent. Her perpetual, combative corrections regarding ethnic customs satisfies her attempt to find “an emotional outlet in the opportunity to harass a white professor who thought he knew what it meant to be Indian,” (61) but offers the reader very little in regard to truly understanding one of the novel’s most prominent characters.
By denying his central figures this necessary complexity, Alexie reduces them to transparent pawns in his literary experiment. However, this isn’t to say that a novel should be without its static, stock characters. As demonstrated by the “Testimony” chapters of the novel, in which eye witnesses are interrogated regarding the Indian Killer’s brutal murders, this two-dimensional approach to character sketching can be a breezy, effective way to push the crime narrative. The reader doesn’t require that the middle-aged bystander at the casino murder, the severely beaten hitchhiker or grief-stricken mother the young boy kidnapped by the Indian Killer have rich personal histories wrought with complex motivations and detailed voices. These characters exist to tell the reader about gunshots, mysterious screams and broken limbs; they exist to serve the genre.
Unfortunately, this seems to be the function of all the characters in Indian Killer. In the end, one can’t help but feel that Alexie has gone slumming in the paperback thriller aisle in order to bring something interesting back to the shelves of literary fiction; but Alexie’s name alone cannot save Indian Killer from being little more than a flat, thrill-seeking novel whose social resonance is lost in the murky waters of its own pastiche.