The men in Sherman Alexie's terrific collection of stories and poems are frequently flummoxed — by life, women, history.
The father in "The Ballad of Paul Nonetheless" can't understand why his daughters are appalled by the music he generously loads into their new iPods ("But all these songs are your songs .æ.æ. They're not mine"). The screenwriter in "Fearful Symmetry" doesn't know why his words desert him after the studio butchers his script. A spoiled gay basher unwittingly beats up an old friend in "The Senator's Son." The young intern in "Salt" who writes obituaries is shocked to learn there are realities worse than death.
Author of 13 books of poetry, three story collections, four novels and the award-winning screenplay for "Smoke Signals," the wily Alexie places his characters at crossroads, then sits back to see which way they'll turn. Paul Nonetheless reaches an unhappy point of no return; the senator's son discovers that his father's high principles are bendable. But the screenwriter finds redemption in crossword puzzles, and the intern learns why no one should live forever. Sometimes things work out. Sometimes they don't.
Alexie, who won a National Book Award for his young adult novel "The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian," excels at blending humor and tragedy. Why, he wonders in the poem "Go, Ghost, Go," does a white professor want to be a martyr for slain Native Americans? "Sherman, can't you see that immigration / Is the new and improved Ghost Dance?" the professor asks. "He's eager to get on that cross / and pay the ultimate cost / Because he's addicted to the indigenous," Alexie explains.
Alexie's works are piercing yet rueful. He writes odes to anguished pay-phone calls, to boys who would drive through blizzards to see a girl, to couples who need to sit together on airplane flights even though the computer thinks otherwise. "Whenever I'm asked / to trade seats / For somebody else's love / I do, I always do."
In the title story, a husband and father of two finds that a brush with mortality returns him to memories of his father. The old man — really not so old at 67 but ravaged by decades of drinking — had to have his feet removed, and now he can't get warm. His son scours the hospital, looking for other Native Americans, because he's sure they'll have blankets. He meets a likely possibility in the hospital corridor and explains the situation.
"Diabetes?" the man asks.
"Vodka straight up or with a nostalgia chaser?"
"Natural causes for an Indian."
It's a poignant yet funny scene, and later the stranger takes the narrator to task for stereotyping his own people. Yet, miraculously, he also hands over a blanket, blessed by his father. In such a small gift, such great compassion. Just like the gems in this marvelous collection.