After reading The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian last summer, I decided to work my way through Alexie’s oeuvre since I had already also read and enjoyed Reservation Blues. Two short story collections and one novel later, I was done. Not in that my task was completed but in that I couldn’t take anymore. Then The Business of Fancydancing (1991) came into my possession after waiting about six months for it. Unwilling to let the book go after waiting so long for it, I decided to see what the first page was like. Ten hours later I had finished it.
The Business of Fancydancing: Stories and Poems is Alexie’s first published work. As the subtitle suggests, the book is considered a collection of stories and poems. However, since most of the stories are less than five pages I think a fair argument could be made that the five stories are actually prose poems instead of stories. That might just be me though.
Like any of Alexie’s other writing, this collection includes instances of beauty as well as sadness. In the opening story “Travels” a hungry youth is told to make a jam sandwich by taking two slices of bread and jamming them together (unless a wish sandwich is more to his liking). This image recurs often in the collection.
After reading The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven and The Toughest Indian in the World, I must admit I had my doubts about Alexie’s short stories–they never seemed as engaging as his novels. That isn’t a problem here even though all of the stories are much shorter than anything found in his later collections. Very like the poems, Alexie’s stories here are bare bones. Instead of full stories (in the sense of having a conventional plot) most are vignettes painting brief, eloquent pictures of what life can mean for a Spokane Indian on and off the reservation.
The bulk of The Business of Fancydancing is comprised of poems. The English major in my wants to make some kind of comparison to illustrate what these poems are like, but no quick comparisons come to mind. Suffice it say, the lines are long and the poems deeply grounded in the concrete. One of my favorites in the collection is “Distances” which is literally a series of vignettes along with aphorisms like “Remember this: ‘Electricity is lightning pretending to be permanent.'”
Familiar characters who turn up in one of Alexie’s later story collections as well as Reservation Blues also make their first appearances here. Thomas Builds-The-Fire, a personal favorite, even has a story all to himself.
I don’t know how illustrative this book is of Alexie’s current style since his latest work has been novels, but that detail aside The Business of Fancydancing is a superb collection of poetry and serves as a good introduction to Sherman Alexie and his unique style/themes without the visceral, harsh details so often found in his newer writing.