Sherman Alexie Uses Humor
Alexie uses humor–or his characters use humor-to reveal injustice, protect selfesteem,heal wounds, and create bonds. Alexie’s sophisticated use of humor unsettles conventional ways of thinking and compels re-evaluation and growth, which ultimately allows Indian characters to connect to their heritage in novel ways and forces non-Indian readers to reconsider simplistic generalizations. Alexie’s cross-cultural humor alternately engages readers–creating positive connections between individuals of diverse backgrounds-and disrupts communities (both Indian and white), erecting barriers that make onstructive communication difficult.
Here lies its principle challenge for readers. Alexie’s shifting treatment of humor serves as a means of connection as well as an instrument of separation. However, it is precisely this complexity and plasticity that allow him to negotiate successfully the differences between Indian communities and mainstream American society, while simultaneously instigating crucial dialogue about social and moral issues especially important to Indian communities. Alexie uses humor to add a new element to it, one that extends beyond resistance (although that is certainly part of it).
Alexie challenges readers of diverse backgrounds to join together to re-evaluate past and present ideologies. Humor generates a freely occupied space in which readers can begin sorting through the myriad connections and disconnections that face us all With its shifting layers and elaborate surprises, Alexie’s humor disrupts readers’ complacency and necessitates analysis, clarification, and, ultimately, identification. reducing it to-a mere game. His humor seems like an effort to hide from the reality of cancer.
From this vantage, Jimmy’s joking might reflect the concerns of those critics who feel that Alexie wants to ignore real threats to Indian cultures and identities. Alexie’s humor is sometimes viewed as a screen that belies the inner hurt and anger felt by many Indians and that ultimately does more harm than good. Writing specifically about Alexie, Owens writes, fool Norma or, I suspect, many readers (Indian or otherwise). Rather, his humor suggests the extent to which Jimmy will go to try to protect himself rom real pain: he does not want to face the horror of his cancer. Who can blame him?
Coming to terms with the pain and loneliness of a terminal disease is no easy matter. Nevertheless, watching him undergo various stages of denial does not blind readers to his heartache. Rather, it emphasizes the personal pain that Jimmy is experiencing. His humor may appear self-destructive on one level, but its effect upon readers is the opposite. It begs the question: what has prompted Jimmy to pretend the pain does not exist? The Approximate Size of My Favorite Tumor” reprises some of Alexie’s recurrent concerns: relationships, traditional values versus modern society, alcoholism, and ironically doomed lives. Jimmy Many Horses retells the history of his relationship with his wife, Norma, from the initial meeting at the Powwow Tavern through their problematic relationship, including grappling with alcohol addiction and Jimmy’s death sentence of terminal cancer. Jimmy’s recollection of their relationship includes a classic Indian Country pickup line, “Listen . . . if I stole 1,000 horses, I’d give you 501 of them.
Although their wedding took place at the Spokane Tribal Longhouse and although Norma is known as the world champion fry bread maker, traditional belief and custom do not especially inform their lives. Jimmy’s cavalier humor about his terminal condition enrages Norma to the point that she leaves him temporarily to go on the powwow circuit. She ends up in Arlee, Montana, with a “second kind of cousin” before returning to be with Jimmy in his last days because, as she explains, “making fry bread and helping people die are two things Indians are good at.
The title of the story comes from Jimmy’s description of an X ray of one of his tumors which was the approximate size and shape of a baseball—with faint stitch marks on it. Norma finds distasteful Jimmy’s attempt to make a joke out of his medical diagnosis; however, she has returned by the end of the story to be with Jimmy in his last days, and their joking together and their domestic dialogue prove the metaphorical point that Jimmy makes in narration in the middle of the story: “Humor was an antiseptic that cleaned the deepest of personal wounds