When I was a junior at Gonzaga University, I just happened to show up to an event in which Alexie was presenting. I didn't know any of his work. I knew he was a big deal. I knew he had written a lot of things, some of which had been made into a movie like Smoke Signals. That was about it. But over the next hour and a half, he won me over. Considering we were at a Jesuit university, you can imagine the shock when he made jokes about Catholics performing a form of cannibalism (eating Jesus' body and drinking his blood), or when he talked about a hot woman down the street affecting his marriage far more than gay marriage ever could. There were audible gasps and pauses throughout the crowd. There were also loud laughs and delighted giggles from those of us who were willing to step outside our comfort zone a little. It was absolutely exhilarating to listen to someone so willing to run past political correctness on the way to a greater truth.
I will never forget that night. It cracked my mind, cranking it further open. It made things that were sacred seem far more tangible, and the ordinary seem that much more special. That's what great art can do. And that's the brand Alexie sells so well.
After making far too many excuses, I finally hunkered down and burned through this novel. Written from a first-person perspective of an undeniably unique character, Alexie sets his hooks in to the reader from the very first sentence. Arnold Palmer has a lot on his mind. Life for a teenager on the Wellpinit Indian reservation sure has its moments - and most of them are dyed at the tips with spots of tragedy. To say anything more would be to rob you of the novel's surprise and it's accumulative power. I can't remember a first person novel in which the supporting characters have popped off the page as colorfully as they do here. You can practically smell these characters alongside you.
Shortly after the book came out, Alexie spoke with NPR and described his story as something of an immigrant story. HIs main character, Arnold, possesses a set of skills that are far more valued off the reservation than they are on it. That common high school struggle of finding your tribe takes on a new, touchingly literal context in the book. Arnold struggles to find a way to fit into both worlds - the reservation or the new, white preppy school - and takes his share of hits and bruises along the way.
That a novel that so perfectly encapsulates the teenage struggle in a unique way has been so wrongly discriminated against is no surprise: the internet has given everyone a fair chance to overreact about anything. But it doesn't make it any less heartbreaking. Yes, Arnold uses some words that are not politically correct. But they are never wielded like weapons towards others - an important distinction. Arnold shows you how you can be frustrated and heartbroken and excited and hopeful and still somehow maintain a sense of decency that people are drawn to. He's a literary hero for any teenager or adult who has ever struggled to fit in, to find their tribe or their place in the world.
Give this book a chance. It will hit you hard. And it will hit you just outside of your comfort zone - where all the magic happens.
P.S. - The final line of the book is one for the ages. Just four words that are so pure and inspiring they could start their own religion.