We know D.C. Get our free newsletter to stay in the know.
Sherman Alexie’s previous works have proved him a master of postmodern character writing. The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven, Alexie’s collection of intertwined short stories, depicted Native Americans’ struggle to define themselves in a world of few positive Indian role models. Alexie’s new novel, Indian Killer, concerns Indian-white race relations in a community struggling to explain the actions of a serial killer who might be Native American. As in Lone Ranger and Alexie’s first novel, Reservation Blues, Indian Killer examines the themes of Native alienation and identity, but its characters are much less complex. In Killer, the troubles of Native Americans, and of the country in general, are mostly blamed on whites.
This dichotomy of the world into white and Indian is evident to a lesser degree in Alexie’s earlier works. In his short story “Imagining the Reservation,” for example, the European settlers are clearly responsible for the plight of Native Americans. The speaker of that story asks the question: “Imagine Columbus landed in 1492 and some tribe or another drowned him in the ocean. Would Lester FallsApart [a reservation Indian] still be shoplifting in the 7-Eleven?”
However, events are rarely this simplified in Lone Ranger’s stories. Part of the blame lies with the whites, but these modern-day Indians are at least complicit in their problems with alcohol and unemployment. A white man dismisses Samuel Builds-the-Fire from his job as a maid, but Samuel decides to drink his first beer, and become drunk, on his own. In another story from Lone Ranger, “The First Annual All-Indian Horseshoe Pitch and Barbecue,” Alexie makes a plea for biracial harmony with this vision: “[S]he held the child born of white mother and red father and said, ‘Both sides of this baby are beautiful.’”
In Indian Killer, Alexie seems to argue that parents should only adopt children of their own race. The problems of his main character, John Smith, a Native American adopted by white parents, stem from the inability of his adoptive parents to provide him with a cultural identity. As a result John constantly invents and romanticizes an Indian past he never had.
Another way Alexie reduces his characters’ complexity is by making their problems simplistically Freudian. Alexie sexualizes the failed relationship between John and his white mother, Olivia, from the very beginning of the novel. Upon receiving her newly adopted child, Olivia’s first action is to “offer John her large, pale breasts with pink nipples. John’s birth mother had small, brown breasts and brown nipples, though he never suckled at them. Still, he knows there is a difference, and as John takes the white woman’s right nipple into his mouth and pulls at her breast, he discovers it is empty.” The baby is too young to distinguish between a white and a brown breast, yet according to Alexie he “knows there is a difference.” John’s new mother has immediately failed, simply due to the fact that she is a white woman. John’s inability to accept his new parents is reflected in his inability to call them “mom” and “dad,” instead always addressing them by their first names.
Later in the novel, the primal scene of a child witnessing his parents’ sexuality is recast into a desiring-of-the-Other account. John vividly remembers his surprised mother: “Olivia was beautiful as milk. Large breasts, long legs, wide hips all creamy. Only the small mole, a few inches above her belly button, was dark.” Alexie’s description makes her sound like a dish of ice cream topped by a single chocolate chip. Instead of the punishment he expects, this glass of “milk” kisses him on the cheek before he runs, hot and embarrassed, from the room. His punishment becomes sexual teasing by his mother, whom Alexie has taken pains to exoticize.
All this fails to lead to Alexie’s assertion that through this experience this 5-year-old boy “first realized…that the difference in skin color was important.” We might understand if Alexie had portrayed John’s parents or other whites recoiling in shock after seeing his naked body. John’s realization that he looks different from his parents is plausible, but why would he decide that his own color is unacceptable? Alexie presupposes that this child would (at a very young age) immediately recognize his otherness when placed in a white world.
John is not the only character whose actions are explained by the negative effects of white parenting. Reggie Polatkin, the only Indian capable of atrocities comparable to the ones whites commit in the book, has an evil white father named Bird to blame. Bird beats the Eurocentric version of the Indian-white conflict into his son; Reggie later rebels by attacking white people, even attempting to dig one white’s eyes out with his fingers.
Like Bird, Alexie’s other white characters generally appear simplistic and stupid. Jack Wilson, an orphan and mystery writer, claims Indian heritage in a feeble attempt to gain acceptance with a group that frequently lambastes him. Dr. Clarence Mather (who likes and respects the works of fellow white man Wilson) is portrayed as an Indian “wannabe,” and, like Wilson, knows nothing about real Indians. Mather displays his ignorance when he evaluates the actions of one of his Native American students: “[S]he always seems so impulsive, so emotional. What’s the word I’m searching for? So individualistic. Not tribal at all.”
This nontribal quality extends to all of Killer’s characters, and is in fact the strongest aspect of the book: Alexie’s realistic portrayal of an America where nobody is quite satisfied and the rage that accompanies that alienation. All the novel’s characters are, whether they realize it or not, at least metaphorically homeless. Some, both Native and non-Native, are searching for an Indian identity. Others hope to return to a romanticized American past that never existed, a vision that Alexie deconstructs through Truck Schultz, his caricature of Rush Limbaugh; Schultz worsens racial tensions in Seattle by blaming the problems of whites on the Indians.
The idea of the Indian Killer (supposedly an Indian who kills whites, not the other way around—the title is intentionally ambiguous) feeds on the racial hatred that the Truck Schultzes of the world worsen. Alexie weaves traditional mythology and the lore of the modern serial killer together in this apocalyptic vision. The Killer leaves owl feathers at the scenes of his crimes; in traditional mythology, owls symbolize death but are also considered teachers. The last scene in the novel depicts the dancing Killer on a reservation cemetery surrounded by an increasing number of Indians and owls. The lasting image seems to be of someone preparing to even the score between whites and Native Americans.
The escalating violence in Indian Killer serves as a strong argument for peace and understanding, but Alexie worsens the situation by re-bipolarizing the white-Indian conflict. The book is still a page-turner (helped out by short chapters and lots of space between them), and the writing maintains the clipped yet graphic style that Alexie displayed in Lone Ranger. But in a novel twice as long as that collection of stories, Alexie says much less that illuminates the complex problems of modern-day Native Americans.