Blasphemy by Sherman Alexie
All sorts of unexpected, unsettling things happen in these 30 short stories. In Phoenix, Arizona, jobless Victor heads south with his nation's worst-ever storyteller to reclaim parental remains. The terrific What You Pawn, I Will Redeem includes a feathered headdress with a runic clue, an erratic ethnic support team, and a bunch of lost Alaskans who've been waiting more than a decade for their ship to arrive.
Elsewhere, a grandma sends hummingbirds and hornets to remind a grandson; a doomed man lies beside a skull from his past; a cockroach faces existential dread.
Most protagonists are Native Americans, like the author. They make both whites and blacks uneasy; they get pulled over in nice neighbourhoods because they "don't fit the profile"; they live in urban alleys.
Alexie tells their stories with rueful, head-shaking humour, ensuring they mock themselves before anyone else can. So we get Jimmy, self-styled White Eagle Feather who won't obey traffic signals because of his tribal sovereignty, and Big Ed, who wants only to play basketball as well as President Obama.
But these aren't frothy pieces. Drugs, dereliction, damage and death are always nearby. Grief and loss glint through the irony, "pain as real and immediate as a broken bone".
Characters lose their way, their partners and their purpose. A tearful, failed sports star, an unintentional killer, a forlorn supermarket worker are typical figures. They endure with a shrug of the shoulders, which makes them all the more affecting.
Sherman Alexie is a rich stylist. He tries all sorts of forms; he builds memorable images: "Eucharist, that glorious metaphoric cannibalism of our Messiah."
He can be lyrical, meditative, subversive on the same page: "There it was, the central dilemma of his warrior life - repetitive stress injury."
When an intruder's baseball bat shatters an apartment window, it turns out to be a tiny Little League bat, which then proves lethal, which then leads to at least three more disconcerting changes of direction.
A mood of irreverent redemption quickens the collection. It's often evoked through the defiant comradeship of the down-at-heel but seldom down-trodden protagonists. "Being homeless is probably the only thing I've ever been good at."
Characters are stripped of nearly everything but still hold up their heads - and a finger to the establishment.
Take note of this guy for your 2013 reading. He's a discovery, as far as I'm concerned. He's very, very good.
David Hill is a Taranaki writer.