War Dances by Sherman Alexie, 2009
The magic trick:
Deconstructing a poem in the middle of the story, demonstrating how the narrator filters art from reality to find truth
Sherman Alexie’s work, even more than that of most authors, seems to toe the line between fiction and memoir. It’s very easy to move through “War Dances” as a reader assuming it to be a work of autobiography. And then we get the poem.
Our narrator includes a poem that he wrote about his father. He then goes through, point by point, and notes every way in which the poem differs from the real-life event that inspired it. It is a funny section. It’s also very insightful. It casts the entire story in a new light. We are no longer assuming the story to be autobiographical. That suspicion has been confirmed; but it also has been discarded as not quite the right question to ask in the first place. We now see the story as a lie and a truth at the same time. And that’s quite a trick on Alexie’s part.
(l) You never owned a shotgun. You did own a few rifles in your youth, but did not own so much as a pellet gun during the last thirty years of your life.
(m) You never said, in any context, “Once a thing tastes blood, it will come for more.”
(n) But, as you read it, you know that is absolutely true and does indeed sound suspiciously like your entire life philosophy.