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Blasphemy, By Sherman Alexie. Grove Press, £14.99

 

Sherman Alexie has beaten the odds. First, he wasn't expected to live, having been born with hydrocephalus, which is fatal if not treated. Secondly, not many Native Americans rise above the narrow confines set by white society – and, as Alexie illustrates, some of their own community – to reach literary success. Alexie has done so, with many national awards.

This collection, comprising 15 previously published stories and 15 new ones, explores the lives of (Native American) Indians in contemporary North America. Certain themes recur, such as national identity, and loyalty to family, friends and customs. The pathos comes from the darker side of two cultures clashing: conflicts between the old and the new, or the self-destructive urge that drives some to fulfil the doomy prophecies (alcoholism, drug abuse) and limited paths (mysticism and spirituality; menial jobs) mapped out for them by whites.

Alexie has a wonderful ear for snappy vernacular, pithy dialogue and mordant humour. In "Cry, Cry, Cry", a man tries to retain loyalty towards his cousin, who has fallen into drugs and crime. Alexie injects wit into even his darkest stories: here, Indian males try to emulate gun-toting black gangs. Instead of drive-by shootings, they engage in "drive-by cursings".

Alexie's humanity is evident. His protagonists often love and respect their parents even if they have disappointed them. Loss of parents is explored in "Whatever Happened to Frank Snake Church", in which a talented basketball player gives up the sport to honour his mother's death. Alexie's evocation of grief is heart-rippingly raw. He is equally good on the bond between friends.

Alexie's exploration of racism is handled with deftest of touches. In "Protest", a pale Indian reasserts his roots by becoming radicalised, but his protests are impotent. When he is chased by the police, he screams that they're racist. The policemen, believing they're chasing a white man, are bewildered. Sometimes, the most important subjects require the lightest approach. Alexie is a master of this technique.

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