Sherman Alexie: Wicked Goodness of the Blues
If American rappers were disposed to deliver critical humor to the ears of the world, they would appropriate (steal) as much from Sherman Alexie as they do from James Brown. They would give a reciprocal salute to Alexie’s “borrowing” of Robert Johnson, “Cross Roads Blues” and “Preaching Blues” to specify Africanist presence in our vernacular imaginations. In the novel Reservation Blues (1995), Alexie voiced the nexus of the gifts of black folk with Spokane/Coeur d’Alene lore, thereby teaching priceless lessons about multicultural humor. The Japanese manga artist Akira Hiramoto was equally multicultural in Me and the Devil Blues 1: The Unreal Life of Robert Johnson (2008), and his book was soul-disturbingly successful if one puts actual history under erasure. The transnational aesthetics of his gesture do not fit as nicely within the parameters of American experiences as do Alexie’s transcultural articulations. Hiramoto’s textuality falls a bit short in negotiating the wicked goodness of the blues that is a touchstone in Alexie’s writing.
Alexie recognizes that in contemporary American life dancing with the Devil is the first step toward eternal salvation. He is not crippled by double or triple consciousness. He freely engages the African, the European, and the Asian. He maximizes certain possibilities of blues critique that emerges when the ethos behind the music is touched by indigenous common sense. He redirects the streams that flow in the blues/jazz poetry of Sterling D. Plumpp.
We can laugh outside the barrel with The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, Flight, and Indian Killer, but we ought to attend as well to his short stories. In the collection War Dances (2009), for example, “Breaking and Entering” and “The Senator’s Son” demonstrate Alexie’s mastery of conceptualizing and rendering “story,” an art that surpasses the writing of competent fiction. His quest for precise language in “Breaking and Entering” makes for rewarding reading; in “The Senator’s Son,” he plays the racial “dozens” by defamiliarizing “motherf___” as “fatherf_____.” Thus, he translates a peculiar Africanist ritual into a political instrument. It might be argued that Alexis re (w) raps certain aspects of the vernacular and injects them into the literary body of the multicultural biotext. By laughing with skeletons, Alexie uses the wicked goodness of the blues to enhance moral dimensions of tragicomic discourses.
Jerry W. Ward, Jr.
May 6, 2014