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NEW YORKER Stories

Sherman Alexie

"War Dances"

August 10 & 17, 2009

Sherman Alexie's "War Dances" is my belated introduction to the work of a noted Native American writer from the American Northwest. Until a few months ago, I skipped stories with such a provenance (this will not be news to anyone who knows what an East-Coast intellectual snob I am), but I'm glad that I didn't miss this one. Before getting to what I liked about the story, let me acknowledge two blind spots. The import of the insect imagery at the beginning of the story eludes me, as does the title. This isn't to say that I have no idea whatsoever of their relation to the story. But I was unable to find, in this story about sharply different ways of being sick and taking care of illness, a compelling one for either.

"War Dances" strikes me as one of more thinly fictionalized memoirs that I've come across and I have to wonder why this is so. It may have a lot to do with Mr Alexie's extremely familiar manner. He writes in a consciously artless, and almost pure vernacular. Perhaps it is my sense that "War Dances" reads like the transcript of an oral performance. Possibly it is the narrator's occupation of the frame. "War Dances" fairly bellows, "Hey, this happened to me." In the part of the story entitled "Meningioma," for example, the narrator looks up the medical condition online, and reports,

Mayoclinic.com gave this definition of "meningioma": "a tumor that arises form the meninges the membranes that surround your brain and spinal cord. The majority of meningioma cases are noncancerous (benign), though rarely a meningioma can be cancerous (malignant)."

It was a scary and yet strangely positive description. No one ever wants to read the word "malignant" unless you're reading a Charles Dickens novel about an evil landlord, but "benign" and "majority" are two words that go well together.

I can't help feeling that if Mr Alexie were writing about a genuinely fictional character, he might dilate on that response at least a bit. Calling the description "scary and yet strangely positive" is exactly what a regular guy would say and it is all that he would say about feeling scared not on the page of a story, in my experience, but right outside my apartment, waiting for the elevator. A few sentences later, further research raises new worries for the narrator, but these trigger anger, not fear anger that the doctor might not have been completely candid. Anger is okay. If this is fiction, it is photorealist fiction.

The story's titled sections inject a deceptive note of regular-guy fingerposting. Worried that the hearing loss signals the return of childhood hydrocephalus, the narrator interrupts himself with a section heading, "Hydrocephalus," followed by a paragraph that begins, "Merriam-Webster's dictionary defines "hydrocephalus" as..." We may ask why Mr Alexie doesn't proceed more quietly, without the section heading and that most unwriterly reference to a (named) dictionary. And we may infer that a certain ambivalence is being shared. Mr Alexie knows that we don't require him to back up his statements by citing well-known authorities. He may know that we'd rather he didn't. In the narrator's world, however, that's how things are done. In the narrator's world, nobody assumes that the user of five-syllabled words knows, ipso facto, what he's talking about. If you want somebody to listen, you point to the dictionary.

However artless the tone, however, "War Dances" is an extremely artful composition. Every sentence contributes to a sense of the narrator's dualities and ambivalences about being a Native American, while at the same time throwing into rich relief the differences between the narrator and his father. "War Dances" would be tedious if it were not centered so firmly on the narrator's determination to put his complex legacy behind him, but without denying or erasing it. Of course this is never mentioned. It simply emerges from the contrast between what the narrator has to say about himself and what he has to say about his father.

Troubled by the loss of hearing in one ear, the narrator goes to see the doctor, and this reminds him that the last time he visited a "health-care facility," he was accompanying his dying father. The earlier visit, recounted in a section entitled "Blankets," constitutes a complete short story on its own. Beneath the matter-of-fact problem of finding a blanket thick enough to warm his father, who has just had a foot and some toes amputated, a great deal of differentiating information is conveyed. For one reason or another, the father is entitled to a palpably inferior level of health care relative to what his son, the narrator, receives. Where the narrator responsibly endeavors to prevent a disorder from becoming worse, the father, a construction worker and alcoholic, embodies reckless disregard for his own health. The son a reader of Dickens has strange diseases that require MRI technology to diagnose. The father brings the loss of his foot and toes upon himself. The contrast suggests that the father is not a human being to the extent that the narrator is.

A few hours ago, my father still had both of his feet. They were black with rot and disease, but they were still, technically speaking, feet and toes.

"Technically speaking"? The narrator inhabits a different plane of physicality. Rueful awareness of the chasm between them prompts the laughter at the end of the story. The narrator undergoes a follow-up MRI, which shows that his meningioma, true to mayoclinic.com's prognostication, has not grown; what's more, it may be nothing but scar tissue, left over from a shunt that was inserted to treat his hydrocephalus. The doctor cannot be more reassuring. 

"Frankly," he said, "your brain is beautiful."

"Thank you," I said, though it was the oddest compliment I'd ever received.

I wanted to call my father and tell him that a white man thought my brain was beautiful. But I couldn't tell him anything. He was dead. I told my wife and my sons that I was OK. I told my mother and my siblings. I told my friends. But none of them laughed as hard about my beautiful brain as I knew my father the drunk bastard would have.

The story's undertow of wreckage and disappointment shimmers with surprising beauty in a section entitled "Battle Fatigue." This consists largely of the transcript of an interview between the narrator and a World War II veteran who fought alongside the narrator's grandfather, and saw him die (after valorous behavior for which he was posthumously decorated) at Okinawa. The alternatives offered by the narrator's heritage are made stark: either a senseless late death beneath a thin hospital blanket, or a senseless early death on a battlefield quite without the propitiatory ritual of a war dance. The narrator asks the veteran if his grandfather "said anything" before dying, and the veteran hesitates.

I know you want something big here. I know you want something big from your grandfather. I know you're hoping he said something huge and poetic, and, honestly, I was thinking about lying to you. I was thinking about making up something as beautiful as I could. Something about love and forgiveness and courage and all that. But I couldn't think of anything good enough. And I didn't want to lie to you. So I have to honest and say that your grandfather didn't say anything. He just died there in the sand. In silence.

Notwithstanding his regular-guy manner of speaking, the narrator has convinced us by this point that his own life, in contrast to those of the men immediately before him, is an embarrassment of riches, right down to his beautiful brain.

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