Ten Little Indians by Sherman Alexie

Ain't nothin' like some ol' genocidal humour
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The Independent Culture

Inside the back cover of Sherman Alexie's latest collection of short stories is a close-up photo of the author laughing so hard he looks almost to be in pain. Nothing could make a better manifesto for his work: a long, close inspection of what it means to be an Indian in modern America, with some terrific gags.

One of his motifs is the instinct that goads most of his Indians to make jokes out of their dire circumstances. The final tale opens with Frank Snake Church stumbling off a mountain path during a suspected heart attack (which turns out to be a vision of his father's death), hurtling down a scree, dusting off his body and making retirement jokes about his 39 years being "old for a Spokane". Alexie is a Spokane/Coeur d'Alène Indian and so carries a stock of self-deprecating humour.

The penultimate story finds a kindly cop picking Jackson Jackson, another Spokane, off a railway track where he had passed out, but who refuses to be taken to the detox clinic. "It's full of drunk Indians," he wails. The cop is astonished by this quip, but Jackson Jackson ripostes: "The two funniest tribes I've ever been around are Indians and Jews, so I guess that says something about the inherent humor of genocide."

Indian history is the pre-existent condition of Alexie's passively angry narratives, but he prefers to write in the present. Some of his characters lean against a stereotypical backdrop of blue-collar workers, shamanic storytelling traditions, ingrained poverty and bars, towards which derelict Indians gravitate to drink blindly. Others are snappy individuals, determined to buck a system in which the odds are stacked against native American success.

As a title, Ten Little Indians could refer to the nursery song, which one character reluctantly uses to identify his ethnicity. White people look at Niagara Falls, the full moon, new-born babies and Indians with "the same goofy sentimentalism", Corliss complains.

For all his wrily demeaning tribal humour, Alexie is never goofy or sentimental - although there is a softer edge to many of these poignant tales than I had expected after reading his superbly hard-hitting collection, The Toughest Indian in the World (2000).

Alexie's painfully funny and astute stories chase the dilemmas of the Spokane diaspora, stripped of any myth or presumption of what an Indian might be.