My rating: 2 of 5 stars
I decided to give this book a try mainly because I'm slogging through a lot of bad-to-mediocre work in reviewing the nominees for the 2015 Hugo awards, and I needed something that was completely different.
This certainly fit the bill. Sherman Alexie is a Native American writer of considerable acclaim who falls on the "literary" side of the spectrum. A couple of these stories have a whiff of magical realism about them, and one in particular, "Distances," is a sort of whacked-out post-apocalyptic tale. Nevertheless, Alexie is definitely not a science-fiction or fantasy writer, at least not in this collection. He is, however, a sharp observer and incisive portrayer of the desperation, alcoholism, betrayal, defeat, and despair that dominate the lives of his characters. (The author admits in the introduction that the book is "thinly disguised memoir." I got that impression from several of the stories--they just had the feel of "this stuff actually happened in real life." Which is quite the feat, now that I think about it.)
The twenty-four stories here revolve among several recurring characters at different points in their lives. They're not stories in the sense I'm used to, that is, a Protagonist with a Goal navigating Obstacles (other than the Native American goal of survival, I suppose, and its Obstacle the entire white supremacist American society). Most of them are character sketches and vignettes. The only one that has something resembling a plot is, not coincidentally, my favorite of the bunch, "The Approximate Size of My Favorite Tumor." In this story, which is admittedly rather bleak, Jimmy One-Horse discovers he has terminal cancer and drives his wife away with his unrelenting black humor about the whole thing. There is a series of flashbacks illuminating his relationship with his wife Norma, and at the end, she returns to see him through his upcoming death. (Laid out like that, this story doesn't seem to have very much of a "plot" either, but it totally works.)
Sherman Alexie is a lovely, understated writer, with metaphors that can sucker-punch you to the floor in a few words. Some of these stories were written when he was quite young--I would have appreciated brief introductions to each story, explaining them in the context of his life. If you're wondering why I only gave this two stars: the book wasn't bad, and I admired the writing. In the end, it just wasn't for me.