Tag Archives: Contemporary American literature

Word Porn: Sherman Alexie – “Indian Killer” (1996)

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.



Word Porn: “The Tortilla Curtain” (1995)

Did you know that the U.S. accepted more immigrants last year than all the other countries of the world combined — and that half of them settled in California? And that’s legal immigrants, people with skills, money, education. The ones coming in through the Tortilla Curtain down there, those are the ones that are killing us . . .

The term “social novel” tends to send most American critics running for the hills. It has come to imply a certain triteness, I think — some sort of vague abstraction that many see as having ironically died with the A-bomb, and ultimately distracting from the serious business of fiction writing. After all, shouldn’t all novels serve some sort of social function? It’s a question which brings us to the age-old debate between critics of the formalist and cultural poetic schools of literary criticism: what purpose does fiction serve? Are its motives didactic, instructional, and irrevocably indebted to the zeitgeist which birthed it? Or, does our understanding and appreciation of the text begin and end with the front and back cover?

T.C. Boyle’s The Tortilla Curtain is a thoroughly convincing, and often very painful, account of race relations in America. Examining the sometimes jarring discrepancies between thought and action, between ideas and their execution, Boyle effortlessly reminds us that politics are inescapable: they latch to our every move, are reflected in every minute decision we make, and — sometimes in very violent, cruel ways — collide with the sober realities of our increasingly fractured, paradoxically global society.

Delaney, one of the novel’s central figures, is a white male of priveledge. He’s a Sierra Club Liberal who prides himself in his ultimate breadth of empathy and understanding, in his connectedness with our precious and quickly-fleeting biosphere, in the progressive ideals which shape his view of America as a beacon for peace, love and understanding. After hitting  an undocumented immigrant with his car — Candido, the anti-hero of the novel’s intercalary chapters — Delaney, after paying off the Spanish-speaking homeless man and leaving him to what seems to be certain death, is forced to address what is essentially an American dilemma: how do we reconcile the ideological pillars on which our country was founded (Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to be free. . .) with the social realities of our treatment of minorities, “documented” or not?

Why did [Delaney] keep thinking of shadowy black-and-white movies, men in creased hats leaning forward to light cigarettes . . . Because he was covering himself, that’s why. Because he’d just left that poor son of a bitch there alongside the road . . . and because he’d been glad of it, relieved to buy him off with his twenty dollars’ blood money. And how did that square with his liberal-humanist ideals?

The Tortilla Curtain, often bordering on a pastiche of American “dust bowl fiction,” gets most of its mileage from playing off of Steinbeck’s form in The Grapes of Wrath. Like Steinbeck’s mammoth opus, Boyle’s novel makes no bones about its perceived job of providing social commentary. It’s unmistakably clear, through the heavy-handedness of the novel’s symbolic and pairing devices (a page straight from Steinbeck’s often criticized literary playbook) that Boyle wants us to use The Tortilla Curtain as an implement by which to consider the world around us. We should struggle, along with Delaney, to ask ourselves what it means to live in a free and democratic society — and what, after all, is less democratic than an impervious wall surrounding the American border?

Of course, the novel is more than the sum of its parts. Don’t expect a 300-page lecture on immigration legislation, or a constantly winking re-write of Candide, for that matter. Expect instead a deeply rewarding, compulsively readable, and uncompromisingly human and heart-wrenching affair which — while it may do little to answer that age-old question of purpose in fiction writing — renders in clean, muscular prose the very questions which will essentially define us and our relationship with the rest of the world.


John Updike: 1932 – 2009

NPR.org, January 27, 2009 ·

John Updike, the Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist, prolific man of letters and erudite chronicler of sex, divorce and other adventures in the postwar prime of the American empire, died Tuesday of lung cancer. He was 76.

Updike once claimed that he was 15 before he read his first novel, but thereafter, the author wasted little time in mastering the art of fiction. He published his first short story, “Friends from Philadelphia,” in The New Yorker when he was 22, and his first novel, The Poorhouse Fair, five years later.

A literary writer who frequently appeared on best-seller lists, the tall, hawk-nosed Updike vowed early in his career to write a book each year. Working at this clip, he published more than than 25 novels and more than a dozen short story collections, as well as poems, criticism, a memoir and even a famous essay about baseball great Ted Williams.

Updike created his best-known character, a former high school basketball star named Harry “Rabbit” Angstrom, in the 1960 novel Rabbit, Run and later returned to the character in three more novels and a novella. . . (continue reading)

Interview with Updike (1995):

Part 1

Part 2