Review of First Indian on the Moon

As with his earlier work, the thematic center of First Indian on the Moon lies within modern Indian life in and around Spokane—the city and Indian Reservation--as well as those areas in between. Unlike many of his predecessors--writers of the so-called Native American Renaissance, including Leslie Marmon Silko, James Welch and N. Scott Momaday—Alexie . . . grounds his work nearly exclusively in the present, a world of drive-ins and Laundromats, HUD housing and 7-11s, and, of course, bars with names like the Breakaway Bar and the Powwow Tavern.

Yet throughout First Indian on the Moon, Alexie's poetry and lyrical prose continually "creates metaphors to compensate for what has been lost," the loss of five hundred years that began with Columbus's arrival in the Americas. Yet, despite the dark and hopeless exterior of reservation life, poverty, alcoholism and powerlessness, Alexie's powerful voice goes beyond the pain and grief to those things which could not be stolen; "smiles which are everything and a laughter that creates portraits in the air."

In what otherwise might be unbearably grim subject matter, Alexie's uneasy yet honest humor salvages what might otherwise be exhausted through repetition. The cast of characters throughout this collection are as rich as any in literature, and even their names, Dirty Joe, Ernie Game, Broken Nose, Little Dog and Lester FallsApart, reflect the harshness or reservation life, while playfully hinting at an ironic sense of life that is felt by both Victor, the narrator of most of these poems, and Alexie himself. The unifying voice maintains this solemn, ironic humor that can laugh at the "stupid wonder of it all," with the likes of Little Dog who "drowned when he passed out and fell face down into a mud puddle, probably the only mud puddle left in that year of drought."

Lurking behind this uneasy humor, though, is an anger that most often resists leaping directly onto the page, but sometimes escapes, as in the description of history and myth in "A Reservation Table of Elements."

"Pick up a chair and smash it against the walls, swing it so hard that your arms ache for days afterwards, and when all you have left in your hands are splinters, that's what we call history. Pick up an aluminum can and crush it in your fingers, squeeze it until blood is drawn, and when you cannot crush the can into any other shape, that's what we call myth."

And although history is not immediately present within Alexie's work, it is in this anger, and the cruel images of Custer and Columbus, and even in the magical appearances of Crazy Horse, that history is expressed, and with these poems and sketches Alexie is rewriting myth.

Ultimately, though, as in the opening poem, "Influences," the body of Alexie's work "is not about sadness" but "the stories / imagined / beneath the sleeping bags / between starts / to warm up the car . . . stories / I told my sisters / to fill those long hours waiting outside the bar, waiting for my mother, my father to knock on the window." And these are stories which are sure to be repeated for generations to come.

From Scott Kallstrom, Review of First Indian on the Moon. Sycamore Review 6.1 (1994). 

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Criticism Overview
Title Review of First Indian on the Moon Type of Content Book Review
Criticism Author Scott Kallstrom Criticism Target Sherman Alexie
Criticism Type Poet Originally Posted 13 Jan 2015
Publication Status Excerpted Criticism Publication Review of First Indian on the Moon
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