The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie

The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie is the story of a boy who leaves the reservation to attend a nearby all white high school. The problems he faces in the high school are what we’ve come to expect in this sort of story, but the problems he faces at home are eye-opening. Just about no one on the reservation supports him. In fact, the people there turn against him openly, calling him names, physically assaulting him, and finally all standing up as a group and turning their backs to him when he enters the gym for a basketball game.

This is very powerful stuff.

What gives Absolutely True Diary it’s charm is the narrator’s sense of humor. His comments made me laugh out loud three times, not a record of late but pretty good. Arnold Spirit, called Junior on the reservation, has a way of looking at things and a way with words that make his situation and what happens to him bareable. Take my favorite line in the book, his reaction to meeting Penelope a beautiful blond white girl at the all white high school: “I was emotionally erect.” Been there Arnold. Haven’t we all.

There has been so much praise and so many prizes for Absolutely True Diary that I feel I may be alone in my criticism of the book, but there I’ll be none-the-less. While Arnold’s narration is funny and compelling I found it to be 90% true to life. The remaining 10% is the part we all wish we were like and wish we had said when we were 15, but it’s also the part that makes Arnold more of a television teenager than a real teenager. The supporting cast of teenage characters drop down to about 75% real 25% television types. Only Rowdy, Arnold’s former best friend from the reservation feels 100% true. There rest are all very good movie of the week type characters, the understanding grandmother, the sympathetic older school mate, the unattainable girl, The sympathetic but alcoholic father. You know the drill.

The other problem I have with the book is that Arnold just becomes too pathetic to believe. He starts the book having to shoot his sick dog because his family is too poor to take it to the vet. You don’t really have to describe the poverty any futher than that, but Mr. Alexie does. That the poverty is all the result of alcohalism and repeated bad decision making did not make me more sympathetic. A little bit would, but the huge dose Mr. Alexie gives us just made me impatient with all of his characters.

Then the author starts killing off the supporting cast. I won’t give away anything here, but killing off three characters in rapid succession does not get you three times the impact killing one does. You can stop after one. Killing three just gets sort of old, to be brutally honest about it.

I cried, then I sighed, then I sighed again but with less feeling.

It was like the second basketball game. Arnold’s team loses the first big basketball game against his former friends on the reservation, so we know he’s going to win the second one. He has to win the second one, it’s an unbreakable rule of sports ficition, but does he have to win it by 40 points? No. Maybe he doesn’t even have to win it. Rocky Balboa never did, not in the good Rocky movies anyway. Winning it by 40 points, being able to steal the ball from his taller former best friend and then keep that friend from scoring all night didn’t make me yell “Yeah! Right!” but it did make me say “yeah, right.”

The main problem is that Sherman Alexie is a wonderful writer of short stories for adults. One of the best out there. The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven is one of my favorite books. But writers of short stories feel they must write a novel to be taken seriously as writers. Witness Jhumpa Lahiri author of The Interpreter of Maladies. Did anyone make it all the way through her novel? I will admit that I am also a bit tired of the recent trend of adult writers going for the young adult market. Why should this good book get so much attention while a terrific book like The Saints of Augustine gets so little notice? The truth is that people who write young adult novels for a living write better young adult novels.

This has been a long account of why I am giving The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie four out of five stars.

I was surprised to find how much I didn’t like this book.  This review first ran on my old blog Ready When You Are, C.B. back in 2008.  Since then I have not read any more of Sherman Alexie’s novels though he has written several more.  I have read more of his short stories and can say I still love them.  Read his short stories, people.  He is a genius of the short form.  

3 thoughts on “The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie

  1. He’s also a good poet. I thought it was peculiar–maybe this one was simplified for a younger audience–that the narrator refers to “Indians” throughout, as if they’re all one tribe.

  2. I don’t know his poetry. I’m going to defer to Mr. Alexie on the use of “Indians.” His narrator is a teenager, 14 or 13 I think which may play into this.

    But isn’t this sort of thing common with most groups. I’ve been known to talk about “Americans” as a whole group at times and to talk about “Southerners” vs. “Westerners” at other times. I even talk about people from California at times but about people from the Central Valley vs. Southern Calfifornia vs. the Bay Area etc. at other times.

    I thinks it’s really a matter of what scale you’re talking about at the time. When I lived in San Francisco there were people who talked about those from the Haight Ashbury vs. people from Pacific Heights vs. people from the Mission District.

  3. I’m sure I read one of his adult novels Reservation Blues – about Robert Johnson many moons ago and loving it. I’ve always had him pegged in my mind as an author to read more of one day. Not so much a short story fan though….

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