For ten years, the Literary Witnesses reading series and Birchbark Books have been bringing exceptional talent to the Twin Cities. Nobel Prize winners, National Book Award winners, Pulitzer Prize winners, PEN/Faulkner award winners. Though he is a decorated writer of wide repute, I don’t think the Plymouth Congregational Church has ever lent its pulpit to someone quite like Sherman Alexie.
I showed up to this one plenty early (fool me three times . . .) and it was evident from the get-go that this was wise. A half-hour before the reading, the balcony was nearly full. Ten minutes prior to the introductions, host Jim Lenfesty began directing audience members to the choir seats behind the pulpit. (“Usually you have to pay to stare at my flat Indian ass,” Alexie later joked.) The spacious sanctuary was packed from front to back, top to bottom, with all walks of life amply represented.
Fittingly, for a reading held in a church sanctuary, the book Alexie was here to read from is titled Blasphemy. Also fittingly, the piece he read from that book was “Faith,” a tale exploring the psychology of a minor physical temptation resulting from unexpected intimacy. But the actual “reading” portion of the reading didn’t get underway for a solid hour: Alexie assumed his place behind the lectern and launched on a meandering, insightful, hilarious monologue that didn’t appear rehearsed. He included a quick tale about his taxi ride to the NPR offices earlier in the day. This was the first snowy day of the season, and Alexie gave the Cities their due for the terrible driving on display. “What are you good at here, if not driving in the snow?” he asked, to the audience’s delight. In a couple of instances, he revealed some unexpected intimacy of his own–for example, how he video chats with his psychoanalyst when he’s on tour, a tricky arrangement because they don’t look at each other in their in-person sessions.
Alexie’s most revealing moment came when he spoke about getting back in touch with his “Rez” self. “I spent twenty-three years on a reservation, and this is my twenty-third year off it. I’m a 50/50 guy now,” he lamented. To illustrate what this meant (his audience was diverse, but a casual glance would tell you that the majority of people in the church didn’t have a “Rez” self to get back to), he told a brief tale in which, while playing a recent game of basketball, he took an elbow to the mouth. He then pulled out the retainer with his fake tooth and grinned, a black absence where his winning smile had been. “Now this is Rez,” he said.
Much of Alexie’s monologue highlighted differences between Native culture and mainstream culture, but it did so with a comedian’s flair. Some of his jokes almost seemed rehearsed, as in the one about his wife’s dark skin: “She’s the kind of dark where, after the pow-wow, you crawl into the tipi and say, ‘Honey, where are you? I can’t see you. Can you smile?'” He added, “If she was Rez, this wouldn’t work.” Because, to belabor his punchline, Rez teeth are too dark. His humor often tiptoed between authentic wit and stereotypes about Native people–a tried-and-true comedic platform, to be sure. I couldn’t help wondering how much Mr. Alexie, a stunningly intelligent person, was making fun of the very audience he so easily entertained.
The crowd was happy to laugh at everything and anything he said, and most of what he said was blisteringly funny, off-the-cuff, and clearly the product of a brilliant mind at ease with its tangential nature. A couple of intense poems switched up the tone, but by the time Alexie delved into his story “Faith,” we were already won over by his sermon.
Literary Witnesses only offers three or so readings per year, but if they’re anything close to this entertaining, I’ll be showing up early every time.
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