Shoma Patnaik's Reviews > Reservation Blues

Reservation Blues by Sherman Alexie
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Sep 12, 2011

really liked it
bookshelves: 2011, america, drama, music, magic-realism, not-owned, american-indian, pacific-northwest, religion, society

I discovered Sherman Alexie on the Never Ending Book Quiz here on Goodreads (it's becoming a good source of new books for me). I wanted to read The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven but since I couldn't find that book, I decided on this one instead.

Reservation Blues had me hooked from the start, when Robert Johnson and the devil (in his guitar) walk onto the Spokane Indian Reservation and meet Thomas Builds-the-Fire. My favourite thing about the book were the characters. Finally, real people with real hopes and fears, virtues and vices. Not antiquated, Hollywood-approved versions of themselves. Mr. Alexie refers to the restraining power of this farce throughout the book: "Indian men have started to believe their own publicity and run around acting like the Indians in movies". I like the fact that the characters seamlessly blend universal experiences - I could definitely relate to them in a lot of ways - with their Indian identities. It was also interesting to read of them as distinct tribes with their own distinct cultures, such as when Father Arnold wonders why the Spokane aren't hunting buffalo: "... Indians were always hunting buffalo on television" and is told "It was those dang Sioux Indians. Those Sioux always get to be on television.". I loved Thomas; he is such a genuine, decent man and I loved the way his relationship with Chess Warm Water develops: "Thomas smiled at her. He had just met the only Indian who told stories like his". But I also found myself caring about Victor Joseph and Junior Polatkin and their friendship. It's a testament to Mr. Alexie's skill in drawing believable characters that he can create bullies with depth - not just Victor and Joseph, but also Michael White Hawk. I also liked the minor characters: The Man-Who-Was-Probably-Lakota (I have a feeling I'll meet him again in another of the author's books), the backward driving Simon, Mr. Alexie's version of Robert Johnson, Big Mom, even Thomas' dad during his impromptu basketball match against the tribal cops.

The magic-realist tone of the book is rich and absorbing - whether it is the music that sets fire to everything, the Fed Ex guy, Thomas' stories, the character's dreams or the horses. I found the latter a frightening, fascinating element in the story and the scene in the beginning of the book with Big Mom and the screaming horses is powerful and chilling. Even the ironical names of some of the characters - Sheridan and Wright, Betty and Veronica - give an oddly phantasmagorical feeling to the book, especially towards the end. I liked the unsettling humour and the way the fantastic throws reality into even sharper relief - which after all, is the sign of magic realism well utilised (and a relief from the superficial acid-pixie nature of many books in the genre).

The book doesn't gloss over all that isn't pretty: the poverty and alcoholism on reservations, substandard government rations and unemployment, the hopelessness experienced by so many young Indians and the duplicity of mainstream culture which is willing to accept Indians - as long as they're not too Indian. The ending - or at least, the events leading up to it - gave me the blues, naturally, but it was well-written and it felt real. What happens to the band's music deal is more common than imagined: Indians and non-Indians alike can discover that artistic integrity and music industry turnovers don't go hand in hand. Thomas' reaction on receiving Betty and Veronica's letter is moving, especially when you note the contrast between their lyrics and those of the band's that start off the chapters. Junior's fate: how many times has it already happened to Indians on reservations across the country? But for me, the most heartbreaking - there really is no other word for it - was the scene with Victor in the end: "That little explosion of the beer can opening sounded exactly like a smaller, slower version version if the explosion that Junior's rifle made on the water tower." When I first read it, it seemed ominous but perhaps his "Fuck it, I can do it too" is more optimistic than I imagine? I sincerely hope so; that there is some hope for him in the end, too. I liked the tone of the last words, optimistic without being complacent. They say that yes, life is hard, tragedies happen but sometimes, you just got to be happy you survived and try and make it better.

I don't know how much reservation life has changed in the sixteen years since this book was written, but Wikipedia tells me that reservation Indians are more likely to live in poverty than any other demographic, even now. There's still high unemployment, suicide and alcohol and drug abuse. I think in that case, books like Reservation Blues, books written by American Indians themselves become all the more important: so that the people in the statistics can become real and their problems discussed with logic and dignity.
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