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Sherman Alexie: Reservation Blues

This is really a first-class novel that deserves to be better known. It tells the story of a group of Spokane Indians, with the addition of a couple of Flathead Indians, who form a rock group that has promise that is never met. But the story starts with Robert Johnson, the blues musician, who arrives on the Spokane reservation. In real life, Johnson was allegedly poisoned by a jealous husband. In this story, he wasn’t poisoned but survived after making his deal with the devil and is now on the run from the Gentleman, his name for the devil, and looking for an old woman whom he saw in a dream, who can help him. He meets Thomas Builds-the-Fire, who directs him to Big Mom, who lives on a hill and has helped many people. Johnson goes to visit Big Mom and we don’t hear of him for another 150 pages but he leaves his guitar behind, eager to get rid of the cause of his troubles.

Thomas Builds-the-Fire has always been bullied by Victor and Junior but has taken it all in his stride. When Victor finds Johnson’s guitar (or, more accurately, Johnson’s guitar finds him) Victor suddenly finds that he is a guitar player and a very good one. With Junior on drums and Thomas on bass and lead singer, the trio form a group and start practising, attracting quite an audience on the reservation. Their first gig attracts two fans, Chess and Checkers, two Flathead sisters, who eventually join the group. They also get two white woman fans (both of whom claim to have some Indian blood) who act as backup singers. Eventually they get an offer from a record company. Alexie has continually made fun of whites and their dealings with Indians and he does so particularly here, naming the two A&R men George Wright and Phil Sheridan, while their boss is wittily named Armstrong (Custer‘s middle name). He even mixes in the dealings of the record company and the band (called Coyote Springs) and actual historical events involving Indians. The preliminary recording session is a disaster and their flirtation with fame comes to a rapid halt.

Alexie’s story is relatively straightforward but the way he tells it is not. It is a rollicking, witty account of life on an Indian reservation, making fun both of the Indians and the whites (though more particularly the latter), with the latter satirised both for past sins and current behaviour Only the white Catholic priest seems to remain relatively unscathed. However, the Indians who kow-tow to the whites also come up for much criticism. His heroes (and heroines) range from the sympathetic (Thomas Builds-the-Fire) to the highly critical (Junior and Victor) and it is part of his skill that he can find the good in the bad characters. But it is the fast pace and humour (with many historical references) that keeps the book rolling long and makes it so well worth reading.

Publishing history

First published 1995 by Atlantic Monthly Press