Saturday, March 31, 2007

reservation blues

Sherman Alexie's novel Reservation Blues (1995) tells the story of Coyote Springs, an all-Indian rock band made of of members of the Spokane and Flathead tribes in eastern Washington. Their adventure begins when the protagonist, Thomas Builds-the-Fire, meets blues guitar legend Robert Johnson, who gives his guitar to the band. Coyote Springs enjoys a brief period of minor notoriety before their career dead-ends in a failed attempt to record an album in New York City.

Alexie blends bitter humor, magical realism, and a nonlinear sense of time in telling this story. Much of the novel reads like this passage:
Just then, Big Mom played the loneliest chord that the band had ever heard. It drifted out of her bedroom, floated across the room, and landed at the feet of Coyote Springs. It crawled up their clothes and into their ears. Junior fainted.

"What in the hell was that?" Victor asked.

Bib Mom walked out of the bedroom carrying a guitar made of a 1965 Malibu and the blood of a child killed at Wounded Knee in 1890. (206)
The effect of Alexie's seemingly indiscriminate mixing of pop-culture references, traditional Spokane culture, and the history of white-Indian relations is bizarre and disorienting. Pepsi, spam, and bologna become artifacts of Indian culture. It is a story that renders the experience of cultural assimilation and resistance palpably unsettling for the reader. An excellent novel, one that deserves its recognition as one of the great American novels of the late twentieth century.

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