In War Dances, Sherman Alexie’s new collection of stories and poems, we encounter characters attempting to come to terms with the challenges that life tends to throw at us in the contemporary world.
The first story of the collection, “Breaking and Entering,” is about a Native American man who accidentally kills a Black teenager after the teenager broke into his house. The protagonist’s own actions, the responses of the teen’s family, and the media’s portrayal of the event reveal the complicated intersections of African American and Native American experiences and power relationships that exist between these two communities.
In the story “War Dances,” we encounter a protagonist who’s afraid that his hearing loss is caused by a cockroach crawling into his ear. His consequent visit to the doctor causes him to recall his last encounter with the healthcare system, when his alcoholic father had surgery on his foot. From here, the story takes us through an associative narrative that explores—with Alexie’s inimitable ironic humor—the protagonist’s relationship with his father as he grapples with the possibility that he may have a brain tumor.
In “Salt,” we meet a young intern at a newspaper. The death of his supervisor (a relative loner with few friends and no children) leaves him having to write the newspaper’s obituaries, and a confusing encounter with a senile old woman forces him to confront his own mortality. In “The Senator’s Son,” a young Republican gay-bashes his former best friend, and then finds himself disillusioned when the politician father he’s placed on a pedestal shows himself willing to compromise his principles to make the problem go away.
Interspersed among these absorbing and thought-provoking stories are short pieces and poems—many of them quite beautiful and delicious. Yet, because there seems to be no unifying theme or apparent logic for placing many of these pieces alongside one another, the reader is left feeling as if the writer simply gathered all the miscellaneous things he’d been working on and shoved them, willy-nilly, into a book.
There are lines of startling brilliance in War Dances, and several of the poems and stories resonate for a long time after the reader has put the book down. Alexie shows himself, yet again, as a talented, insightful, and engaging writer. However, the rather fragmented context in which we encounter these pieces in this collection takes away significantly from their strength.