If a lot of recent fiction is inward-looking, safe, middle-class and domestic, then these three collections provide a bracing antidote. All of them are concerned with outcasts and loners, the has-beens and never-weres, the powerless and underprivileged, territory that often is left unexplored by the cosmopolitan, bicoastal writers who dominate the literary landscape. This is fiction taken straight, with no chaser.
Sherman Alexie’s Blasphemy: New and Selected Stories (Grove, $27) is a showcase of one of the foremost Native American writers of his generation. These stories are tough, warmhearted, rowdy and moving. Their protagonists usually are members of the Spokane tribe of northwestern America, and Alexie toys with the construct of ethnic identity in nuanced, often funny ways. A character in “War Dances” says, “My dad started, like, this new Indian tradition. He says it’s a thousand years old. But . . . he just made it up to impress himself.” Others find only sadness and betrayal in their heritage, such as when the protagonist of “This Is What It Means to Say Phoenix, Arizona,” asks, “Whatever happened to the tribal ties, the sense of community? The only real thing he shared with anybody was a bottle and broken dreams.” Alexie’s achievement here is his depiction of the tangled complexities of race — that great open secret of American life — in an undidactic and utterly natural way. And of course, like all great writing on race, these stories are really on being human, about how “our contentment was always running only slightly ahead of our dissatisfaction.”