Sherman Alexie: I’d Like My Money Back and an Apology

I want to make something clear: I think Sherman Alexie is one of the great American writers of my time. The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven is a seminal work in the examination of the modern American short story. Reservation Blues was a beautiful novel. His follow-up story collections The Toughest Indian in the World and Ten Little Indians weren’t as good, but they still stunned me, made me happy I spent the time with them. How could they match up with Lone Ranger…anyway? A writer can spend a decade on his first book, writing, rewriting, revising, revising…replacing one story with the next. The first book is the raw talent, the culmination of all those years of dreaming and enthusiasm. When you write the second, third, etc. I imagine that a writer is turning over new thoughts in a relatively short amount of time, especially when he wants to keep the rage moving forward, wants not to fall out of the public eye, wants not to be a one-hit wonder.

When an author writes a great book, he signs a book contract. If it’s a phenomenal book, he might sign a multi-book deal that requires him to write two, three, four books in a given span of time. A writer like Sherman Alexie strikes me as a slam dunk for a contract like that. A few of his books were published by Grove/Atlantic: paperback reissues, paperback originals, hardcover AND paperback…He must have had a hefty contract, although I don’t know for sure.

His next book comes out in September: The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian. Little, Brown and Co. is publishing it…

His last book, Flight, was released by Grove/Atlantic a few months ago — like two and a half months ago. When I read the book, I was mauled, but not in the good way. I thought it was one of the worst books I have read in the last five years and by far the worst book I’ve read this year. Sherman Alexie insulted me and wasted my time for the two or three days I spent with his book.

When I finished the book, I looked for the publisher: Black Cat (an original publisher of Grove/Atlantic, Inc.). Then I found out that Grove/Atlantic published a few of his previous books. Meshing all that with the fact that he’s gone with Little, Brown for the next novel…and that the books were released so close to one another…I could only deduce that Flight was a poorly conceived and written, 181-page writing assignment.

The type was so big that I thought I had an impaired-vision version of the book. Now I realize that the publisher had to make the type that large in order for it to be even 181 pages. There has to be a term in the business for a book like this, even if it’s an insider’s term: “money making reading for suckers”; a “let’s get this over with” book; a “treat your readership like they’re fucking imbeciles” book. If someone knows the term for a lousy book that is published just because of the name recognition or a desperate fulfillment of a contract, please enlighten me.

Flight is about a teenager, Zits, who has bounced around different foster homes all his life. Troubled kid, no friends, aimless youth, etc., etc., etc., etc., etc. — a perfect beginner’s lesson in archetype.

The troubled teen, in bitter resignation of what he is and what he can never be, plans a final and violent send off — one that will kill him along with some innocent people. We understand that he’s dead, but that he is suddenly reanimated, in barely connected chapters, as an FBI agent during the civil rights era; an indian child during Little Big Horn; and as an airplane pilot. In the end, he hasn’t killed anyone…He comes to a startling realization that he matters as a human being, he gets therapy, there’s hope, the end.

What is this? Is Black Cat a fledgling subsidiary press that needed a name to get their little company off the ground? Am I being too cynical?

Maybe. But when I get done with the book, find it insulting, and then read in the “Black Cat Reading Guide” of the comparison of Zits to literary figures like Kafka’s Gregor and Captain Ahab, I find it a little hard not to smirk.

Captain Ahab wouldn’t have wiped his tender bottom with this book, and the disturbing thing is: I think Sherman Alexie knows it.

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