In one of his many books, Willie Nelson described how singer Roger Miller (“King of the Road”) was pulled over for erratic driving. “Can I see your license?” the cop asked. “Can I shoot your gun?” Miller replied.
In Sherman Alexie’s new memoir, “You Don’t Have to Say You Love Me,” his father, a Coeur d'Alene Native American, has a different method of antagonizing police. During one confrontation, Alexie writes, his father called a white cop “Custer.”
We don’t learn how this insult was received. But the author’s father, Sherman Alexie Sr., didn’t need sarcasm to find trouble. He served stints in prison for burglary and forgery. He was arrested for driving drunk. He rarely held a job and was covered in jailhouse tattoos.
Alexie’s father was present mostly as an absence. His son worshipped him anyway. “He was physically graceful and strong, adept at ballroom waltzes, powwow dancing, and basketball,” Alexie writes. Dad was drunk much of the time, but he was kind. His son was certain of his love.
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The author’s mother, Lillian, was a different story. She got sober when Alexie was 7 but stayed mean. Alexie describes her as “dead-salmon cold” and “army-ant intense.” She was, in his telling, a pathological liar.
Lillian’s death in 2015 seems to have been a primary catalyst for this garrulous and discursive memoir. Alexie considers at length, and with a considerable amount of round-the-mulberry-bush repetition, what we talk about when we talk about grief.
The details of Alexie’s early life, some of which he has rehashed in his many books of fiction and poetry, are engrossing. His family lived in poverty on the Spokane Indian Reservation in Wellpinit, Washington. His parents sometimes sold blood to buy dinner.
Alexie, who was born in 1966, had severe health problems. “Born hydrocephalic, with abnormal amounts of cerebral fluid crushing my brain, I had surgery at five months to insert a shunt and then had it removed when I was 2,” he writes. “I suffered seizures until I was 7 years old, so I was a kindergartner on phenobarbital.”
His health woes have not abated. He is bipolar. He admits to “blackout rages.” He recently had a benign tumor removed from his head. His sense of life’s brevity is omnipresent.
In “You Don’t Have to Say You Love Me,” Alexie lingers on insults to his body and mind that could have been avoided. He was sexually abused as a child, and mistreated in other ways.
A good deal of this book is written as poetry. Alexie imagines his eulogy for his mother, delivering one of the most memorable disparagements of a parent I’ve read: “She protected me against cruelty / Three days a week.”
There is forgiveness of a sort to be found when Alexie discovers that his mother was raped, and that she herself is the product of a rape – stories he chooses to believe, though as with most revelations in his family, there are competing versions.
As a writer, Alexie wears his heart on his sleeve, his spleen in a go-cup and his cranium in a sleek postmodern headdress.
He can be powerfully direct and plain-spoken. He speaks, for example, of hatred that “felt as ancient as a cave painting.” He picks up many darkly interesting topics, such as anti-Indian racism delivered by Native Americans themselves.
He can also be vivid and very funny. Curly hair on an Indian is a “Geronifro.”
Alexie is well known as a performer of his own work; his popular readings are part poetry slams and part séances. (“I don’t believe in ghosts,” he writes in his memoir. “But I see them all the time.”)
His sentences often seem composed for the ear rather than the mind. “You Don’t Have to Say You Love Me” has a talky, baggy quality, especially in its second half. What begins as speech ends in filibuster.
(BEGIN OPTIONAL TRIM.)
Alexie mocks his tendency toward repetition. But self-awareness doesn’t smooth over the sections that are like this one:
“Is there a cure for grief? Is there a cure for grief? Is there a cure for grief? Is there a cure for grief? Is there a cure for grief?
Be funny. Be funny. Be funny. Be funny.
Humor is a crutch. Humor is a crutch. Humor is a crutch.”
(END OPTIONAL TRIM.)
Nothing grates faster than the sound of a writer in love with the sound of his own voice. The reader begins to weave a mental hamper out of snippets like “I’m a great storyteller” and “I am a gifted writer” and references to things like “my forensic debate and stand-up comedy skills.”
Like so many writers, and humans of all stripes, however, Alexie is a Möbius strip of self-loathing as well as egomania.
As if to pre-empt criticism of his memoir, Alexie also speaks more than once about how he is famous, in his family, as a serial stretcher of the truth. Yet it’s a genuine drawback of this memoir that so little feels reported out and pinned down. The reader vaguely trusts Alexie emotionally. Factually? Hardly at all.
“You Don’t Have to Say You Love Me” barely takes its author past eighth grade. He attended a mostly white high school in Reardan, Washington. He was popular there; he was elected class president and was captain of the basketball team.
“What a man overcomes,” Saul Bellow wrote, “is a measure of his quality.” Alexie overcame a great deal to become a successful writer. How did he find the words? That’s a story worth waiting to hear, but it will probably take a biographer to unearth.