Sherman Alexie’s The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-time Indian (2007)
Art by Ellen Forney
Little Brown, 2009

A few years ago I saw Sherman Alexie at a ridiculously underattended reading in a small Toronto bookstore on a fine Friday night in summer. I remember wondering if there wasn’t something else I wanted to do that night. And presumably many other people wondered the same thing. Which was all the better for those of us who did opt to attend because it made for a remarkably intimate setting: that night, Sherman Alexie cozied onto my MRE list.

Even though I had only read a few short stories at that time (and seen Smoke Signals), I was wholly and completely hooked on his approach to storytelling and his outlook on the writer’s life. And then, near the end of August, when I was settling back into the Monday-to-Friday-ness of life, after a long summer holiday, I was hungry for a glimmer of that long-ago Friday night chat. And, then, one day later, The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian cozied onto my list of Favourite Books for 2010.

Oh, I know I’m not the first person to feel this way after meeting Junior. The novel won The National Book Award and caused quite the buzz in lit-land. Chances are that you’ve already read it yourself. So you probably don’t need me to tell you that it’s the story of Junior’s coming-of-age on (and off) the Spokane Reservation. You don’t need me to tell you that Alexie fuses comedy and tragedy in an unforgettable character. You don’t need me to tell you what a great novel this is.

But you might want to be reminded of Junior’s simple style. Here’s how he describes the location of the reserve:

“If the government wants to hide somebody, there’s probably no place more isolated than my reservation, which is located approximately one million miles north of Important and two billion miles west of Happy. But jeez, I think people pay way too much attention to The Sopranos.”

And here’s what he has to say about Dawn, the girl he fell in love with when he was 12:

“She was out of my league, and even though I was only twelve, I knew that I’d be one of those guys who always fell in love with the unreachable, ungettable, and uninterested.”

See? He’s a misfit. It’s a common tale. “Don’t get me wrong. I think weird is great. I mean, if you look at all the great people in history – Einstein, Michelangelo, Emily Dickenson – then you’re looking at a bunch of weird people.”

Yes, in many ways Junior is struggling just the same way as so many boys (and girls) his age struggle. He is inadequate and painfully aware of his inadequateness: “He imagines asking Rowdy for his advice in terms of getting Penelope to notice him: ‘Well, buddy,’ he would have said. ‘The first thing you have to do is change the way you look, the way you talk, and the way you walk. And then she’ll think you’re her fricking Prince Charming.'”

But Junior’s life is fundamentally shaped by not only the storms of adolescence. “It sucks to be poor, and it sucks to feel that you somehow deserve to be poor. You start believing that you’re poor because you’re stupid and ugly. And then you start believing that you’re stupid and ugly because you’re Indian. And because you’re Indian you start believing you’re destined to be poor. It’s an ugly circle and there’s nothing you can do about it.”

So he’s a poor misfit, caught in a systemically warped society. But not to worry (if you were): this is not some book-length, Oh-poor-Indian narrative. Junior’s is not a Black-and-White world. Er, Red-and-White world. “Indians can be just as judgmental and hateful as any white person.” The complexities of identity permeate this story, but never overtake the heart of its telling. Which is Junior. All the way, Junior.

What really made me love this book was not just Junior’s voice and the terrific artwork that helps life his story off the page. It was the experience of reading a scene (three-quarters of the way through the novel) that left me completely unmoored.

I won’t say what happens, but it’s the much-anticipated conflict that has been brewing throughout the novel. It’s that oh-so-recognizable scene-right-before-the-final-scene in the movie, and you can practically see the arc of the age-old story as the ball is tossed. Yes, it’s a wee bit predictable. And that’s right where I got caught. In that predictability. In that narrative arc. Junior’s narrative.

What Alexie did in that scene cut me loose from the expected. I was so completely wrapped up in Junior’s experience that I didn’t even notice the shift. The shift that was catching Junior up. The shift that caught me right up with him. I can’t remember the last time that an author got a hook into my jaded-reader’s-skin that way. And I don’t think I’ve ever felt such intense elation, twinned with such overwhelming shame. It wasn’t my conflict, it was Junior’s, but it caught me in a moment of vulnerability that has cemented Alexie’s position on my MRE list.

I’ll have more to say about his first novel, Reservation Blues, next month. I know there are lots of Sherman Alexie readers out there: what’s your favourite novel of his?