Sherman Alexie Blasphemy Release
For some reason I half expected the front windows of Elliot Bay Bookstore to be quivering with raucous frat-party noise late Monday night in wild anticipation of Sherman Alexie’s midnight release party for his new book Blasphemy: New and Collected Stories. Instead, the doughy scent of fresh Indian fry-bread filled my nostrils and the audible but familiar hum of a slightly overstuffed bookstore greeted me at the door. Towards the back of the store, on the landing of the stairs halfway up to the second, floor Whiting Tennis played somber tunes on guitar and cello to a sleepy but excited crowd. Meanwhile, the line for booze trickled back from the bookstore café to the cookbooks section. Above me, an intricate five-foot-long balloon orca hung to mark the celebration. Through the growing crowd I spotted Alexie, by now a seasoned Seattle celeb, chatting with a young fan and simultaneously taking in the scene—all this for him, on a Monday, an hour shy of midnight, no less, in the city that always seems to sleep at 9 PM.
Soon, Tomo Nakayama of Seattle band Grand Hallway took the stage, crooning until the room was at a standstill of standing-room-only. Four of Alexie’s friends joined onstage to sing and drum “John Wayne’s Teeth,” a hilarious and strangely moving song written for Alexie’s first film Smoke Signals that goes, “John Wayne’s teeth, ya ho, ya ho/Are they fake or are they real?/Are they wooden or maybe steel?/ John Wayne’s teeth.” By this time the mood was lifted and Elliot Bay was likely near capacity as Alexie took the stage.
“I don’t even know what I’m going to read yet,” he said, fumbling with the book—a thick hardback showing a photograph of a much younger, longer haired Alexie on the cover—head back, laughing to a sky full of clouds.
If you are from the Northwest, you've probably known Alexie’s name for nearly two decades, as long as his books have been on the shelves. His books are uncomfortable and honest, and deal with the unmistakably sad reality of reservation life while keeping readers laughing from one page to the next. Humor is one of Alexie’s strong suits—not only on page, but also in person. In what seemed more like a standup routine than an introduction to the stories, he worked the crowd into a steady chuckle with a longwinded series of off-color jokes and anecdotes aimed at basically everyone in the room—white people, black people, Latinos, Native Americans, women and old people. The crowd seemed comfortable in their discomfort, perhaps refreshed by Alexie’s lack of Seattle-proper political correctness.
“Seattle racists are different,” he joked, “because you don’t even know that you’re racist.” The audience was pleased with him. And Alexie, it seemed, was pleased with himself.
By the time he’d begun to read the story “Midnight” he was already 15 minutes into his allotted reading time. The story follows two middle-aged men grappling with the aches of an old friendship, centered on a failed and frustrating game of pick-up basketball. The reading was fast-paced and passionate, almost theatrical in the way Alexie spoke his characters’ voices.
When he was done reading “Midnight,” Alexie took out his retainer to show where he’d lost his front tooth this summer in a basketball game. Then, once again he had a lengthy, loud debate with himself over what he’d read next, finally settling on “Fame,” a story originally published in Seattle A&P. The story lasted about five minutes and then it was midnight. Alexie urged the audience to buy the book, get it signed or simply go home and sleep. A line of people, books in hand, quickly formed up to the signing table on the second floor of Elliot Bay and the main floor largely cleared out through the front door.
As I watched people introduce themselves to Alexie one by one as he signed book after book, I could tell that Alexie was important to them—not just his words, but the man, his unabashed humor. I listened to him read and joke with the audience earlier and observed whether people were made uncomfortable by his racially charged quips or bored at his tangential rambling. It seemed that’s what his audience came for—they stood at attention, mouths agape with laughter even as their feet tired from standing. If Alexie is what gets Seattleites to stay out past their bedtimes on a Monday night, he deserves his treasured status.