His is a story familiar to us by now, one that’s been fictionalized (loosely) and retold in a National Book Award-winning best seller. A boy is born on an Indian reservation in Eastern Washington and not expected to live. He does, only to chafe at the constraints placed upon him by family and tribe. As a teen, he leaves the rez and goes to a white school, where he excels.
In college, a creative writing class sparked a career that, 20 years later, has this sickly Indian boy seen as one of the most respected writers of his generation.
Sherman Alexie has come a long way from his precarious start in Wellpinit, Wash., on the Spokane Indian Reservation. His words – in the form of poems, short stories, novels and screenplays – have found audiences around the world. And now, two decades after the publication of his first poetry collections, “I Would Steal Horses” and “The Business of Fancydancing,” he’s coming out with a book that gathers some of his previously published short stories with new works.
“Blasphemy,” which will be released Tuesday by Grove Press, includes the classic Alexie stories “The Toughest Indian in the World,” “The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven,” “The Search Engine” and “What You Pawn I Will Redeem.”
The idea behind the collection is to introduce Alexie’s short fiction to those readers who discovered “The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian,” his 2007 National Book Award-winning young adult novel.
As he puts it, he’s “letting new readers have a Costco – so to speak – of my short stories.”
“Blasphemy” opens with the new story “Cry Cry Cry,” a tale of drugs, of sadness, of jealousy, of death, set on the Spokane Reservation. It is written with a cadence one finds in the best spoken-word poetry.
“Forget crack, my cousin, Junior said, meth is the new war dancer.
World Champion, he said.
Grand Entry, he said.
Five bucks, he said, give me five bucks and I’ll give you enough meth to put you on a Vision Quest.”
It’s a story Alexie likes a lot.
“ ‘Cry Cry Cry’ is great. That’s why we put it first,” he said. “I think that one combines what I used to do with where I’m at now as a writer.”
And where is that?
“Somewhere between utter depression and a slight chance of hope.”
Alexie culled the new works from the trove of stuff he’s been working on – he writes poems and short stories all the time.
“Every collection of mine is a result of (realizing) ‘Wow I’ve got 300 pages of stories,’ ” he said in a recent telephone interview from his office in Seattle.
“It’s always tough to put the new stories together,” he said. “We took about half of what I had. And there were a couple stories I liked a lot that I let go. Which I’m sure my editor is right about. I can’t think of an instance where she was wrong about a story. And I’ve been wrong lots.”
Alexie will be coming back to Spokane to read from “Blasphemy” on Friday at the North Central High School auditorium – home of the Indians, naturally – hosted by Auntie’s Bookstore.
“I need the room. The audiences are big,” Alexie said, adding that crowds are bigger where there are large Indian populations. “Arizona, New Mexico, Minneapolis. Large cities of Indians, larger crowds.”
He added with a laugh, “Spokane’s the only audience where I can look out in the crowd and see five or six women I’ve made out with somewhere in my past.”
Alexie admits his relationship with Spokane and Eastern Washington is complicated.
“It’s who I am, it’s where I’m from,” he said. And even though he’s lived in Seattle for 18 years, “I’m not from Seattle.”
He added, “I was born for the city, but the most beautiful memory in my life, when I need a place to go mentally to hide, is October in Eastern Washington.”
What is so appealing about that place, that time? “The smell of change, the cool air, that sun still can get warm,” he said. “Anticipation of winter. The colors.”
He has a favorite place, one he always tries to get back to when he’s in town, but he’s not sharing. “An Indian’s got to keep secrets.”
Still, we get back to the complicated nature of the relationship.
“My memories are not all fond,” he said. “It’s a right-wing, homophobic, racist place, too.”
Those good and bad memories help inform Alexie’s writing. He has two novels in the works, both of them revisiting characters introduced in earlier works. In one, Thomas Builds-the-Fire and Victor Joseph, from “The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven” and “Reservation Blues,” are 10 years older and about to embark on another road trip. “Because there isn’t enough Indian-buddy-road-trip adventures,” Alexie said, then quipped, “The movie will star Danny Glover and Mel Gibson.”
The other novel is a sequel to “Absolutely True Diary.” OK, not really a sequel. More of a “Rashomon”-style retelling – it will look at Arnold Spirit’s decision to leave the reservation and attend Reardan High School from the perspective of Rowdy, his best friend.
“Rowdy was so popular, people are always asking about him,” Alexie said. “It was my son, actually, who said, ‘Why don’t you tell Rowdy’s version?’ I said, ‘Hey, I’m going to steal that, kid.’ ”
He doesn’t like writing novels, preferring poetry and short stories. “If I could get away with never writing another novel again, I’d be happy. They’re marathons of pain and agony and body fluids. It’s awful, awful, awful.” Still, the “Diary” sequel is proving interesting.
“It’s actually very fun and illuminating to take the negative view toward what I did – leaving. To adopt the pose, the view of some people who had been my great friends, who ended up becoming lifelong enemies or estranged,” he said. “To channel that energy was very educational.”
It’s not like he’s calling up those old friends to ask for their perspectives. Apparently, those wounds still hurt.
“I remember their anger and hate very well, thank you,” Alexie said.