Tuesday 1 September 2009
Why I can't break up with Sherman Alexie, part two
This is the second time I've read The Toughest Indian in the World, the first being sometime around 2000 or 2001. The first time around, I was in the airport waiting to go to Halifax; of course, I had a book with me. I'm so worried about running out of reading, even on two-hour flights, that I probably had three books with me. That were probably 700 pages long each.
But I was browsing in the airport bookstore, which is generally mush, because I can't help myself, when I saw this book. I'd thought I'd read all of Alexie's work at that point but clearly, he'd been outpacing me. I scooped it up, sat on the floor, and started reading - and almost missed my flight, I was that engrossed. All his early work is wonderful but I felt he'd reached new heights with The Toughest Indian in the World and I couldn't stop. I wish more books grabbed me this way.
A few years ago, Alexie came to Toronto to read at Toronto Women's Bookstore. The plan was for him to read from his new book, Flight, which was just okay; he may have agreed with my assessment for instead of reading from Flight, he read a short story called "South by Southwest" - which, in my view, is not only the best story in The Toughest Indian in the World, but also the best thing he's ever written, period. Hearing him read it was wonderful - he's got a great voice and sense of pacing, and hearing this one reminded me of why I keep reading his stuff, even though it continues to be pretty mediocre in its most recent incarnations.
Of course, he was a bit of jerk at the signing at Toronto Women's Bookstore. But after a couple of years of psychotherapy, I am now able to separate the author from the text and enjoy his stuff again.
Re-reading The Toughest Indian in the World was not a disappointment; and going back is always a risk, for my tastes have changed quite radically over the years and continue to do so. "South by Southwest" is still my favourite short story of all time. "The Sin Eaters" still scared the living shit out of me. I still loved every tale in this collection. And I want to cry knowing that Alexie will likely never again produce anything so devastatingly good.
I'm not being mean, really; he said so himself at that reading when, after finishing his telling of "South by Southwest", he said something like "I don't think I could write this again; I wouldn't have the energy." No shit, man. I just don't understand why - he's only 43 or so years old! I feel like it's too soon for him to be fatally afflicted by the Haruki Murakami syndrome; and yet it seems to be so.
Not that I won't be reading his new book of poetry, Face, in the next few months. It's hard to let go of the genius even if the genius hasn't shown itself in a long time. I once had trouble breaking up with a boy for similar reasons, but it wasn't genius he was hiding but general niceness. Le sigh.