Sherman Alexie is one of my favorite authors. Both The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian and The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven were bruisingly honest and poetic. I’ve also enjoyed his poetry, other short story collections, and his work as writer and producer for the film Smoke Signals.
So when I settled in to read The Toughest Indian in the World, I was really looking forward to Alexie’s trademark honesty, humor, and compassion. I walked away from the short story collection disconcerted, however, and feeling drained and empty.
The Toughest Indian in the World is an appraisal of marriages and relationships, and the intersections of sex, sexuality, and race in modern America. The first story, “Assimilation” is perhaps the weakest, in that it revisits a very formulaic marriage story: wife cheats, husband has contemplated cheating, couple has martial issues, but those issues are ultimately surmounted by love. The only thing which made me warm to the couple in the first story is some banter which was shared between them — clever, witty, and displaying clear affection — but ultimately buried under things that attempted to explain why their marriage was falling apart, but failing to really get to the heart of why this couple had come together and remained together.
Other stories had a similarly vague or frankly dreary outlook on relationships and love, which made it a long, hard read at points.
The standout stories of this collection for me were “South by Southwest” and “The Sin Eaters”. “South by Southwest” was wonderfully surrealistic, in addition to being profoundly unsettling. It reminded me a little of Flannery O’Connor’s work, but with much more anger, vivacity, and humor so dark it bordered on ribald and absurd. “The Sin Eaters” was, perhaps, one of the most disturbing and vivid pieces of fiction I have read in a long time, and appropriately so. The story is not at all humorous, and presents an apocalyptic and terrifying vision of Native American life. Alexie pulls no punches whatsoever, and I was so disturbed by the story I had to put the book aside for two days before I could continue reading.
“Saint Junior” was the gentlest of the stories, and paints a poignant portrait of a loving marriage. This story and the last story, “One Good Man”, were pretty much the only stories which had more positive things to say about love, relationships, and marriage. Other stories in the collection overwhelmingly focused on yes, the complexity of relationships and marriage, but also, relationships and marriages which came away feeling bleak by contrast to those in “Saint Junior” and “One Good Man”.
Much of “serious literature” likes to make things bleak and sad, particularly relationships and marriages. Angst and tragedy are inevitable. But I find that notion tiring, and dull, simply because it has now become a trope within “literary” writing. And I am a little disappointed to find Alexie so liberally applying this trope, albeit, while skillfully examining intersections of race, racism, and gender, as noted. Admittedly, I enjoy Alice Hoffman’s view on love and relationships far more than the “relationships are full of hardship” type of approach, which some would (probably fairly) say is a very cotton-candy approach, when all is said and done.
Alexie’s short stories also showcase his attention to orality and to structures which are decidedly non-traditional to short fiction, even in this day and age. This makes his work a far more interesting read than most.
Ultimately though, this was not my cup of tea. I am infinitely biased by the fact that I enjoy stories about love to be, well, loving for the most part, and to explain more deeply the hows and whys of relationships, and what brings people together, and makes them stay together. This tome did not do that for me, but, I would still recommend reading it just for the joy and (uneasy) pleasure of “South by Southwest” and “The Sin Eaters”.