By Sherman Alexie
420 pp., $22
Sherman Alexie is a native American who discounts that designation as a "guilty white liberal term;" he prefers to be called Indian. "Indian Killer" is his second novel and it is the literary thriller at its best.
Alexis transforms the genre into a sharp, multilayered format that enables him to engage his readers on a number of levels. It's a terrifically readable whodunit with a fascinating group of suspects. It's also a complex history lesson that is eloquently expressed in fantasy, myth, and fact.
The plot centers on the random murders of white men in Seattle; all of the physical evidence points to a killer of Indian heritage. But the trouble really begins years earlier with a questionable adoption. A baby boy is wrenched from his 14-year-old Indian mother and handed over to a well-meaning white couple named Olivia and Daniel Smith.
Although they try to keep their son connected to his heritage, they are so clueless about his Indian identity that they name him John Smith.
John grows up culturally disoriented, searching for his mother, constantly guessing which tribe he belongs to. His rage eventually develops into a psychosis. I'm not giving anything away by identifying John as the Indian killer. The reader knows it from the beginning. And it speaks well for Alexie that despite this, he's able to keep his audience interested, actually edgy, for more than 400 pages. He cleverly supplies a perfunctory list of suspects to introduce the various types who occupy the margins of Indian culture.
There's the half-Indian whose frustration leads to violence. There's the militant Indian student, Marie Polatkin, who disrupts a course in native American literature. And there's the wannabe Indian, Jack Wilson, a writer of Indian-based mysteries who fraudulently claims Indian ancestry, a self-proclaimed expert on all matters Indian.
Within the highly accessible format of the thriller, Alexie has profound things to say about the identity and the plight of the American Indian through Marie. She challenges her white professor's "right" to teach native American literature with a reading list of mostly white authors.
"If the real Pocahontas came back, do you think she'd be happy about being a cartoon?" Marie asks.
Alexie also presents a controversial case against mixed adoption and fiercely defends the concept of self-preservation by condemning intermarriage. He offers a strict and unequivocal definition of who is an Indian.
Alexie's Seattle also contributes to the ongoing brutality. Even this reportedly civil city is vulnerable to the racial violence that plagues other urban areas. Tensions between whites and Indians boil beneath what turns out to be the city's thin veneer of tolerance - a condition that Alexie describes as "surface liberalism."
He skewers this liberal mecca and spotlights its homeless Indians surviving under bridges, sleeping in parks, and staying warm in doorways.
In spare, unflinching scenes Alexie takes a metaphorical knife to the heart of American racism and, like the Indian killer, he does so to redeem his Indian brethren.
*Judith Bolton-Fasman is a freelance writer who specializes in holocaust issues.