Grasping good out of gloom in Seattle

Everywhere you turn in "Ten Little Indians," Sherman Alexie's newest collection of short fiction, you find a piece of Seattle — a basketball court in the Central District, a coffee shop on the University District's "Ave.," an apartment in Pioneer Square. All nine of his stories happen here, and it's a pleasure to see and hear so many places and names you know so well.

You'll recognize many of the people, too: community-college teachers, salesmen, aspiring politicians, paralegals, folks who have made it or are getting there. These are regular middle-class lives, but they aren't urban white. Alexie's main characters are Native Americans, and Indians, Alexie shows, have a whole different take on things.

In the long opening story "The Search Engine," Corliss, an English major at Washington State University, accidentally finds a 30-year-old book of poems by a Spokane Indian named Harlan Atwater in her school library. The book has never been checked out. Although the verse is very uneven, Corliss likes it. She's Spokane, too. Her quest to find the forgotten poet leads her to Seattle and to an encounter that is nothing like she hoped for. Corliss is a wonderful character, and the story has some surprising things to say about the pain of cultural identity.

Chance meetings form the basis of two other Alexie stories. "Can I Get a Witness" brings together a divorced video-game designer and a suicide-bomb survivor who wants to escape her life. "Flight Patterns" is a subtle study of a Seattle salesman who is always traveling and an Ethiopian cab driver who can never go home.

Another pair of stories directly concerns race. "Lawyer League" introduces a mixed-blood narrator who moves easily in the white man's world until he bumps up against racism on the basketball court. Alexie doesn't have much story here, and it shows. Much stronger is "The Life and Times of Estelle Walks Above," a very funny, rambling memoir of a 13-year-old boy growing up in his mother's world of feminism and white women's groups. The story is a compilation of quirky lists, embarrassing teenage moments and wicked jokes such as:

"Q: What's the difference between an Indian reservation and a racist, sexist, homophobic, white trash logging town entirely populated with the mutated children of married second cousins?

A: The Indians have braids."

Alexie's finest story, "What You Pawn I Will Redeem," is a deceptively simple tale: A homeless man sees his grandmother's dance regalia in a pawnshop window. Fifty years ago, the regalia was stolen from her and was never found. The man is able to make a positive identification by a bead that is sewn into the garment.

The pawnbroker is an honest guy. But he paid $1,000 for it. The rest of the story's action traces how this broken grandson tries to raise the asking price in one day.

This balance between poetic desire and the hopeless harshness of life is what makes Alexie's work unique. That painful process of reclaiming something good, something of the spirit, something intensely personal, told with humor and no false sentiment, runs through much of this fine collection. In "Do You Know Where I Am?" it's marriage. In "Do Not Go Gentle" it's a baby's life.

The final story "What Ever Happened To Frank Snake Church?" contains all of Alexie's strengths and some of his excesses. Here, he brings back the basketball motif, but this time embeds it deeper. Back in high school, Frank Church was a star basketball player for Seattle's Garfield High School who had plenty of college offers. When his mother dies of brain cancer three days after his graduation, he gives up the sport to honor her memory. Now 40, grieving over his father's recent passing, Frank decides to get back into playing shape.

Like his first selection, "The Search Engine," Alexie takes his sweet time with Frank's journey, trusting the reader will stay with him, even when he piles on episodes that stall the narrative. That is the way of the storyteller. He figures if you've stayed around this long, you'll hang in there. And, you know, he's right.

Author appearance

Sherman Alexie will read from "Ten Little Indians" at 7:30 p.m. Friday at Seattle's Town Hall. Tickets are $5; for more information, call Elliott Bay Book Co. (206-624-6600).
"Ten Little Indians"

by Sherman Alexie
Grove Press, $24