The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian

Sep 23, 2010

Some writers have the gift of channeling living breathing people in their fictional characters. Charles Dickens and J. D. Salinger did. So does Sherman Alexie.

Arnold Spirit is the star of Alexie's The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian. Arnold is a charismatic underdog. Born with water on the brain, he lisps; he stutters. Cute in a little kid, but in junior high, it qualifies you for membership in the Black-Eye-of- the-Month Club. Arnold says, "Everybody on the rez calls me a retard about twice a day."

The rez is the Spokane Indian reservation in Washington, specifically a small village, Wellpinit, just a few miles from a white border town, Reardan. To escape his bullying rez brothers, Arnold takes a leap across the border to a better school, but the joke is on him: He says, "I went from being a small target in Wellpinit to a larger target in Reardan. After all, I was a reservation Indian, and no matter how geeky and weak I appeared to be, I was still a potential killer." In Reardan they call him names Chief, Tonto, Sitting Bull and they shun him, but at least nobody punches him.

Now this might sound kind of intense, but Arnold draws cartoons, and he's a great comedian. He chews on stereotypes. He draws funny pictures of everybody's ugly side. Like Holden Caulfield, he's a teenage straight-shooter with an opinion about every flavor of phoniness and meanness in the world.

Cartoonist Ellen Forney did a fabulous job of illustrating the wacky world inside Arnold Spirit's head. Some of the cartoons are polished, some not so much just as if they'd been drawn by a teenage diarist caught in the daily flux of heavy living and having fun.

This book's a hard-hitting stand-up comedy routine. My only quarrel with stand-up comics? They never give up the mike. While Arnold Spirit has great depth, the secondary characters are a little flat, with the exception of Arnold's best friend, Rowdy a mean, tough, son-of-a-gun. Like here, trying to convince Arnold to go to a powwow: "What if somebody picks on me?" Arnold said. "Then I'll pick on them." "What if somebody picks my nose?" "Then I'll pick your nose, too," Rowdy said. "You're my hero," I said. "Come to the powwow," Rowdy said. "Please."

The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian is a full-time pleasure, and Arnold Spirit's such good company, you'll wish you could call him on the phone.