Misery Loves Company With a Sense of Humorby Laura Smith Terry
(Grove Press, 2012)
While it is not uncommon to come across an author who attempts to employ humor when covering serious subject matter, many fail to achieve the delicate tonal balance required for success. This is not the case with Sherman Alexie, winner of the National Book Award, American Book Award, and PEN/Faulkner Award, to name a few. In his latest book of short stories, Blasphemy, he leads his readers through a minefield of grave situations while turning back to wink and crack jokes along the way. Although many of the stories are heartbreaking and angst-filled, the reader may often find himself laughing aloud while shaking his head in sadness over the same paragraph.
With Blasphemy, Sherman Alexie has created a beautiful anthology of new and selected stories, many of which take place on the Spokane Reservation in the Pacific Northwest or center around Native American characters. The subject matter is vast and varied; Alexie tackles racism, drug abuse and alcoholism, illness, marriage, love, poverty, and death. The underlying themes in most of the stories are undeniably weighty, but the author’s wry sense of humor helps lighten the load. Each character is distinctly memorable, and their situations are rendered with a stylistic range that should keep the reader’s interest from one story to the next.
The anthology begins with “Cry Cry Cry,” a hilarious and heartbreaking account of a relationship between a man and his drug-addicted cousin. In “The Toughest Indian in the World,” Alexie touches on masculinity and sexual orientation, and in “Whatever Happened to Frank Snake Church?” a man grapples with the passage of time and his relationship with basketball in the wake of his father’s death. In a rare deviation from the Northwest setting shared by most of the stories, “Night People” unfolds in a 24-hour manicure salon in New York City as a brief encounter between two insomniacs in the night. In “The Approximate Size of My Favorite Tumor,” James Many Horses reflects on his marriage as he copes with a diagnosis of terminal cancer by telling relentless jokes about death to his less-than-amused wife.
Cultural identity is a common theme throughout Blasphemy, and while many of the stories center around a specific demographic, the depth and life Alexie brings to his characters is such that readers of all stripes will recognize something of themselves or someone they know in these pages. We can only hope that when we are confronted with our own difficult stories, we are able to recount them as humorously as Sherman Alexie does in Blasphemy.