Like The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven, much of The Toughest Indian in the World combines deft psychological realism with the kind of narrative logic more commonly found in dreams. In "South by Southwest," a white drifter finds love on a "nonviolent killing spree" with an overweight Indian he calls Salmon Boy; in "Dear John Wayne," the cowboy actor falls in love with a young Spokane woman and proves himself a charmingly feminist hero. ("Oh, sons, you're just engaging in some harmless gender play," he tells his boys when he finds them trying on lipstick.) But for every bear hibernating on top of the Catholic church, there's also a GAP-wearing, Toyota-driving urban Indian on a quest for his roots. In both realist and surrealist modes, Alexie writes incantatory prose--as well as the kind of dialogue that makes even secondary characters leap into sudden focus: "'What?' asked Wonder Horse, as simple a question as could possibly be tendered, though he made it sound as if he'd asked Where's the tumor?"
Alexie is sometimes guilty of painting his white characters with too broad a brush. (Is any anthropologist truly as obtuse as the one in "Dear John Wayne"? Could any reader really want Mary Lynn, the narrator of "Assimilation," to stay with her boorish white husband?) Yet his kind of firebrand politics still has the power to shock. A harrowing fable about whites kidnapping Indians for the medical properties of their blood, "The Sin Eaters" could be dismissed as paranoid if it weren't so hauntingly written:
On that morning, the sun rose and bloomed like blood in a glass syringe. The entire Spokane Indian Reservation and all of its people and places were clean and scrubbed. The Spokane River rose up from its bed like a man who had been healed and joyously wept all the way down to its confluence with the Columbia River. There was water everywhere: a thousand streams interrupted by makeshift waterfalls; small ponds hidden beneath a mask of thick fronds and anonymous blossoms; blankets of dew draped over the shoulders of isolated knolls. An entire civilization of insects lived in the mud puddle formed by one truck tire and a recent rain storm. The blades of grass, the narrow pine needles, and the stalks of roadside wheat were as sharp and bright as surgical tools.It's a hard story to read, and that's only right. The Toughest Indian in the World offers so many pleasures, who could deny it the power to disturb us as well? Funny, dreamlike, heartbreaking, angry--these are stories that could have been written by no one but Sherman Alexie. --Mary Park