Christy's Reviews > Grand Avenue: A Novel in Stories

Grand Avenue by Greg Sarris
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May 28, 2008

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bookshelves: native-american-lit-and-history, readinglist1, short-fiction, 20th-century-american-lit
Read in May, 2008

My first instinct is to say of this book that it's essentially Sherman Alexie's The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fist Fight in Heaven--but less interesting. This doesn't really do Sarris's book justice, but it is the most accurate way I can find to describe it and the way that it fits into my recent reading of Native American literature.

The details of each book are different, obviously--Sarris and Alexie develop different characters, and both authors develop complex, believable characters--but both books are novels-in-stories set on the reservation, in which the stories are told from various characters' perspectives and storytelling itself is a central theme of the text. However, where Alexie's book plays with perspective, realism, the impact of the stories, and much larger themes, Sarris's book remains fairly straightforward. Sarris tells the story of this community in a series of first person stories (with a couple of notable exceptions) in which it is always quickly clear who is telling the story and, thanks to the genealogy he provides at the beginning of the book, how this narrator is related to the other narrators of the book. Each story could stand on its own but also enhances the others that have come before and that will follow in the collection.

Ultimately, Sarris's novel-in-stories is a really excellent exploration of a particular community and its members in traditional short story format. It's good, but it doesn't match the complexity and depth of Alexie's exploration of Indian-ness and humanity through his stories and reflections.

I feel like this review makes Sarris's book sound like it's not a good one. But it really is. It is a well-written, at times really moving set of stories that happens to suffer in my experience by reading it just after having read Alexie's book. As illustrations of what Greg Sarris does really well, here are a couple of my favorite excerpts. The first is the opening of the first story, which told me that I would enjoy this book: "My name is Jasmine, but I'm no sweet-smelling flower. Names are just parents' dreams, after all" (3).

The second comes from "Joy Ride," in the middle of the book: "You dream and plan, plan and dream--and then there's life, the everyday way of the world. It's like ivy. It looks pretty at first, the way it climbs a tree. Then it takes the life right out of the tree, strangles it. You have your firstborn and it's the most beautiful thing you know, so beautiful you decide to have the second one, which you didn't plan for, even though you can hardly afford the first. Then the third and fourth appear, but it's all right because your mother-in-law moves in and helps with her social security check. You open your eyes and realize you're too far under water and haven't taken a breath of air for some time. You learn to live without breathing" (114).

It is this kind of beauty that makes Sarris's book worth reading.
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