Indian Killer by Sherman Alexie (4/5)
A creative writing instructor of mine once said, “Those who write poetry tend to love people, but those who write fiction tend to hate people.” According to him, because a novel has to put its characters through so many obstacles, a novelist has to have a streak of sadism. Perhaps it’s because Sherman Alexie is also a consummate poet that his love for his characters always shines through his fiction, especially in his first short story collection, The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven and his first novel, Reservation Blues. It seems a little strange, then, that Alexie chose a serial killer as the subject matter for his second novel, Indian Killer. This seemed like particularly dark subject matter for an author whose writing can be laugh out loud funny.
Indian Killer spans a number of different characters whose paths constantly criss-cross, but they all orbit around a series of violent murders in Seattle by a perpetrator dubbed “The Indian Killer.” The Indian Killer gets his name because he stalks, murders, and scalps his victims and then leaves behind two owl feathers. The plot seems like it might belong to those modern day dime store novels, the airport paperback. And while Alexie indulges in elements of the thriller—there are tense scenes where we don’t know whether the killer will get his victim or not all written, like the point of view shot at the beginning of Halloween, from the perspective of “the killer”—he is far more interested in how these acts of violence are read by and acted upon by the residents of Seattle. Four hundred years of racial resentment and anger between whites and American-Indians boil over thanks to these murders.
If there is a main character, then it is the absurdly named Native-American, John Smith, who was adopted by a wealthy, well-meaning white couple from Seattle. As John grows up, he becomes increasingly alienated from his white parents. Despite the fact that his parents have the means to send him to college, John takes on a job in construction after graduating from high school, but even in this environment he’s an outsider. It’s hard not to read descriptions of John’s awkward interactions with people—his inability to read others and strange social maneuverings—and not think about autism. Alexie appears to be using mental development disorders as a sort of metaphor for cultural estrangement. As an Indian raised by white parents, John belongs to a culture of one.
In addition to John, the other central native character is Marie, a Native-American activist and college student. While the murders are happening, Marie, an English major, is taking a course on Native-American literature by an anthropology professor, Dr. Mather. Mather is a white native sympathizer, who prides himself on his enlightened attitude towards American-Indians, but becomes increasingly incensed when Marie consistently challenges his notions about native cultures because he lacks an experiential component. For Marie, Mather’s knowledge is suspect because he has never really lived on the rez.
Mather is affecting a kind of passing (he loves to mention that he has been adopted by Native-American tribes), and this passing is echoed by another character, Jack Wilson, a mystery writer who holds onto a historically suspect idea that one of his ancestors may have been a famous Seattle Indian. Wilson, who used to be a police officer, writes mystery paperbacks about a Native-American, Aristotle Little Hawk, who also happens to be a private detective. Wilson engages in representations of Native-Americans that Alexie hopes to disfigure with his literature. Alexie describes the love plot of the average Aristotle Little Hawk novel in the following manner: “A beautiful white woman fell in love with Little Hawk in each book, although he was emotionally distant and troubled. The beautiful white woman fell in love with Little Hawk because he was emotionally distant and troubled.” But even as Wilson gives in to Native-American tropes, unable to break out of a narrative that has been building for four hundred years, he is also naively well-meaning. He wishes to honor what he sees as his own Native-American ancestry, even though he is blonde and blue-eyed.
Much of the novel allows for Alexie to play with notions of identity. The anthropology professor, Dr. Mather, seems to be an attack on academics who would unravel notions of authenticity. Often these academics tend to come from wealthy or middle class backgrounds and are more interested in abstract notions of race than in the day to day material experience of minorities in America. Likewise, Wilson wants to have race both ways. He wants the benefits of a white experience while also holding onto an ersatz native background that legitimizes his occupation of native lands. Marie’s angry and exasperated attack on those who don’t fully understand Native-American experience in the 20th/21st century seems to be Alexie’s way of pushing against these condescending liberals. But on the other end of the spectrum, there is Truck Schultz, a conservative radio personality that represents America’s bigoted id. Unlike Wilson and Dr. Mather, Truck is explicitly anti-Indian, and his radio program keeps dredging up racist discourse from centuries past. For Alexie, these are the twin poles of misguided white beliefs about Native peoples.
Even though the novel goes to some violent and dark places, Alexie never fully lets go of his sense of humor. He once referred to the book as a “feel good novel about interracial murder.” And you get a sense that Alexie really cares for his characters, even for those whom he disagrees with. Still, this creates a somewhat uneven tone for the entire book. If Indian Killer is less successful than Alexie’s earlier work, it is because he is pushing his craft forward. Maybe he will develop a streak of sadism, yet.