It's becoming clearer now that "Indian Killer" was an anomaly in Sherman Alexie's career. In that novel, he expressed Native American rage in a raw, direct form. Abandoning much of the humor of his earlier works, such as "The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven" and "Reservation Blues," he envisioned a Seattle of literary poseurs, shock-talk radio and vigilante injustice, inflamed by a serial killer of white men who scalps his victims. But in the short- story collection "The Toughest Indian in the World," the laughter and tenderness returned -- as it does again in Alexie's new collection, "Ten Little Indians."
This doesn't mean he ignores painful issues. It's just that he finds subtler ways of making us pay attention. Most of his characters are members of the Spokane-Coeur d'Alene tribe in eastern Washington. Many are poor. Some drink too much; some are homeless. Most are unsure of who they are. "Indians were obsessed with authenticity," points out Corliss Joseph, the 19-year-old protagonist of the opening story, "Search Engine." "Colonized, genocided, exiled, Indians formed their identities by questioning the identities of other Indians."
[Corliss] uses computers, but she herself is the story's "search engine" of the title, bent on finding a fellow Spokane tribe member, Harlan Atwater, who published a lone book of poetry 30 years ago. She discovers the book in the Washington State University library, where nobody has ever checked it out. Alexie quotes Atwater's poems, which are rueful and funny; he enlists our sympathy for Corliss, a woman with a mission, a chugging little engine that can, as she journeys to Seattle, not just to track down Atwater but find out why nobody in the tribe has ever heard of him and why he stopped writing.