Apocalypse Powwow: The Elusive Search for Sherman Alexie

Eastern Washington, shit. I’m still only in Eastern Washington. Every time I think I’m going to wake up back in the jungle. When I was home after my first semester, it was worse. I’d wake up and there’d be nothing. I hardly said a word to my husband, until I said “yes” to a divorce. When I was here, I wanted to be there, when I was there, all I could think of was getting back into the jungle. I’m here a week now, waiting for a mission, getting softer. Every minute I stay in this room, I get weaker, and every minute The Man squats in the bush, he gets stronger. Each time I look around, the walls move in a little tighter.
I always thought that Alexie had made a Faustian exchange, his soul to the devil for that sack of gold—literary genius. And after “Reservation Blues” I was sure of it. That kind of talent can only be bargained for. He’d surely deny it. He’ll give you instead an equation: Poetry = Anger X Imagination, as if that would explain everything. As if such an equation is an adequate explanation for the appreciable good looks, that laugh that makes women, and some men too, throw their panties on stage at him.
So what was he doing here? In the Palouse? What am I doing here? I’m following the trail of a panther, a night phantom. Is he even real? I cruise down this proverbial, muddy brown river searching for lunacies and gospels.
“What of nature?” The photojournalist asks. “Fuck nature.”
“What of spirituality?” The photojournalist asks. “Fuck psuedo-Indin’ spirituality.”
“What of those who might challenge you?” “Fuck ‘em, how dare they.”
“What of those who might take offense?” “Fuck ‘em.”
This is provocateur at its peak. There must be a school for that ready self-assurance; cock-sure, acerbic, so much so that when TIME magazine called him, “septic with unappeasable anger,” he had t-shirts made.
I was handed his dossier from the people upstairs: National Endowments of the Arts Fellowships. “Indian Killer” made the New York Times Notable Book of the Year. Sundance Film Festival Audience Award for the motion picture “Smoke Signals.” And what came next shook me—shook me to my very core: 1996 PEOPLE WEEKLY, Best of pages, next to Kelsey Grammar and M.C. Hammer, the good ol’ days.
What happened to this guy? The higher ups were grooming him to be full-prize winner, maybe even a Nobel Prize in Literature. Oprah Winfrey certainly thought so. Do you have any idea the loopholes and bureaucracy one must jump through to have war medals re-issued? But he did it. Somehow. Son of a bitch. He razzed the President of the United States, teased him, the gall, could charm the skin off a rattlesnake. Genius. Or madman.
I make my inquiries. I make my calls. I still can’t gain access into the inner sanctum. I interview his old college teachers, I line up contacts. I bribe his publicist, I call in favors, harass his publishers, I stalk his housekeeper, follow his babysitter to the grocery store, until finally, somewhere near the end of this muddy brown river, I receive replies from his assistant’s secretary’s support staff person. There is an end to this spiral of unending inertia. She says, he’ll take a meeting with you. It terrifies and thrills me at the same time.
The photojournalist cautioned me the day I called to inquire about photos: “What am I gonna say about him? What am I gonna say? That he was a kind man? That he was a wise man? That he had plans? That he had wisdom? Bullshit man! Hey, man, you don’t talk to Alexie. You listen to him. The man’s enlarged my mind. He’s a poet-warrior in the classic sense. I mean sometimes he’ll… uh… well, you’ll say hello to him, right? And he’ll just walk right by you. He won’t even notice you. And suddenly he’ll grab you, and he’ll throw you in a corner, and he’ll say, ‘do you know that “if” is the middle word in life?’ I mean I’m no, I can’t . . . I’m a little man, I’m a little man, he’s . . . he’s a great man. I should have been a pair of ragged claws scuttling across floors of silent sea . . .”
He was close, real close. I couldn’t see him yet, but I could feel him, as if the car were being sucked upriver and the water was flowing back into the jungle. Whatever was going to happen, it wasn’t going to be the way they call it back in the Palouse.
Entering the compound, I had a run-in with a couple of his lawn men, gardeners. I asked them what it was like working for him.
“This writer guy? He’s wacko, man! He’s worse than crazy. He’s evil. It’s fuckin’ pagan idolatry. Look around you. Shit! He’s loco… I ain’t afraid of all them fuckin’ skulls and altars and shit. I used to think if I died in an evil place, then my soul wouldn’t be able to make it to Heaven. But now? Fuck! I mean, I don’t care where it goes, as long as it ain’t here. So whaddya wanna do?”
They obviously weren’t holding back.
I rang the bell and was ushered to his home office. There were skulls and bones of deceased writers lining the bookshelves, each marked with an identifying plaque. Barbara Kingsolver. Tony Hillerman. Nasdijj. Forrest Carter. Carlos Castenada. Ian Frazier. I thought of the line, “Bring me the head of John the Baptist.” I got a chill just thinking about it. The horror. The horror.
I waited for an hour. He never appeared. I waited for another hour. Someone brought me a diet soda. I scanned the interior of the room. Some family photos. A few trophies. Another hour passed, then four. I waited. Someone quietly stepped into the room and said, “He is sleeping now.” But, it didn’t deter me. I waited. I waited until the moon rose over the quiet street, and I could hear the light of the stars skipping off the soft currents of Lake Washington. I’m still waiting. I don’t care how long it takes. I’ll wait. I’ll stretch my body across this oak floor, and use my coat as a pillow. I’ll sleep tonight. Tomorrow I’ll wait again. I’m still waiting. As long as it takes. I’ll wait.
Yes. I’ll wait.

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