According to a hoary legend of the book publishing world, Bennett Cerf, one of the founders of Random House, was once asked if he could discern any formula for a best-seller. Reasoning that books about Abraham Lincoln, doctors, and dogs all did reliably well, Cerf suggested that somebody write Lincoln’s Doctor’s Dog.
Only the dog has survived that joke. Canines can still move copies, but unless you’re Doris Kearns Goodwin or George Saunders, forget about Lincoln, and nowadays doctors just churn out diet-book blockbusters on their own. Besides, the market has changed a lot since the days Cerf had to take government censors to court to win the right to publish Ulysses in the U.S. Let me suggest a still relatively untapped premise that’s better suited to the tastes of today’s book-buying public: the heartfelt memoir by a distinguished literary son celebrating his mother. The buyers of new hardcovers are overwhelmingly female and typically in at least early middle age. It’s not hard to see why they devour books allowing them to imagine that the sullen youths currently stinking up their family laundry baskets will one day honor the women who raised them. James McBride’s The Color of Water: A Black Man’s Tribute to His White Mother, a book that has sold millions of copies, is the benchmark example of this can-do little subgenre, a title beloved by book clubs, syllabus designers, and whoever organizes those events where everyone in a city is encouraged to read a single book. More recently, Will Schwalbe’s 2012 memoir, The End of Your Life Book Club, about the literary conversations Schwalbe had with his mom during her treatments for pancreatic cancer, spent four months on the New York Times best-seller list.
Enter Sherman Alexie, surely the best-known Native American writer alive and author of the YA classic The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian. Alexie’s new memoir, You Don’t Have to Say You Love Me, is mostly about his mother, Lillian, but a lot about Alexie himself, which is not out of character. Alexie’s career—he’s a poet, a novelist, and an essayist, as well as a gadfly who never goes long without getting embroiled in some literary kerfuffle—is one long wrestling match with his own personality. As the guest editor for The Best American Poetry anthology for 2015, Alexie selected a poem by Yi-Fen Chou, which turned out to be the pseudonym of a white poet attempting to comment on the representational imperatives of such anthologies. Alexie chose to keep the poem in the anthology for reasons he explained in a convoluted but winningly frank post to the Best American Poetry blog. The explanation nettled an impressively diverse range of people, which is what made it such a classic Alexie statement.
Alexie’s work puts some readers off, and admittedly, they’ve got a point. He is no practitioner of false modesty, and You Don’t Have to Say You Love Me, a mix of verse and prose, features multiple references to his own fame and accomplishment. His style can be sloppy and features its share of clichés, such as, in this book, the obligatory “Fuck you cancer” poem railing against the disease that took his mother’s life. Many of the poems feel less than necessary to the whole, which may be due to the fact that the book’s overarching concept calls for exactly 78 prose and 78 verse pieces, one each for the 78 years of Lillian’s life. That’s a recipe for bloat. You Don’t Have to Say You Love Me sometimes repeats itself, because, as Alexie writes, “Great pain is repetitive. Grief is repetitive.” Sure, but it doesn’t automatically follow that the literature of either needs to be.
On the other hand, the man does have a way with words. Alexie calls himself “mother-stung” by a woman whose sharp tongue and withering disdain were notorious on the Spokane reservation where they both grew up: “She mocked oxygen and scolded gravity.” His father—a gentle alcoholic who rarely worked and is treated lovingly in Alexie’s previous autobiographical works—is a man whose yearning and disappointment are neatly snared in a quip: He “always smelled of the smoke of one good cigar intermingled with dozens of cheap stogies.”
For Alexie’s fans, the essence of his appeal is his scouring honesty. He’s not merely willing to tell people what they don’t want to hear; he leaps at the chance. Piety in every guise draws his fire. Yes, he scoffs at white people who believe Indian societies are “liberal” or naturally close-knit. But “all in all,” he writes, “I am most gleeful about inciting the wrath of other Indians,” particularly those who demand propriety from him as a representative of his people. Just as you become exasperated at how insufferable or self-absorbed Alexie sounds, he beats you to the punch, excoriating his own “narcissism” and vanity, his carelessness and lack of self-knowledge. A sardonic sense of humor—equal parts therapized “urban Indian” and wise-cracking “rez Indian” philosopher—buoys it all. When a non-Indian friend asks why there isn’t a museum commemorating the genocide perpetrated on Native Americans alongside the Holocaust Museum, Alexie replies, “Because we Indians would spend years arguing about whose tribe suffered the worst massacre.”
Long before he gets around to admitting it in You Don’t Have to Say You Love Me, the reader has realized that Alexie gets his stubborn, bridge-burning temperament from his mom. He is a man who berates himself for the lameness of the eulogy he delivered at her funeral not because it was insufficiently eloquent but because he “lied” in saying “nothing forceful about her cruelty.” Lillian’s cruelty—coldness is really a better term—is amply recounted in You Don’t Have to Say You Love Me. Once, in the midst of a screaming fight with her son, she threw a Pepsi can at him, striking him in the head and knocking him out. When he finally came to on the floor, Lillian sat calmly quilting in a nearby chair. That story becomes even more alarming in light of Alexie’s medical history. He was born hydrocephalic and twice required surgery to relieve the pressure on his brain. For the first seven years of his life, he suffered from seizures. A head injury for this kid was not to be shrugged off.
This was not the only occasion Lillian seemed callously indifferent to Sherman’s pain or peril. When a local white boy lured Alexie, then about 10 years old, and some of his friends into his family’s trailer to have a look at his new pellet gun, then proceeded to shoot them with it, she reproached him for getting so upset about the incident: “You take everything so seriously.” As an adult, his widened perspective allows some understanding of her stoicism. When a sadistic white teacher inflicted severe, arbitrary “punishments” on Alexie’s second-grade class, his mother did try to intervene. Nothing happened, and the same teacher would go on to torment Alexie’s younger sisters. His mother was powerless to stop such abuses of power, so her MO became learning how to soldier through.
The poverty, violence, abuse, catastrophe, and loss visited on Alexie’s family and friends have been biblical. They were so poor he wore socks on his hands instead of mittens during the winter. He wedged butter knives into the doorjamb of his bedroom during his parents’ drunken parties to keep out potential molesters. Rape, he learns, is entwined in the history of his female relations. His beloved but hard-drinking older half-sister, possibly the product of one of those rapes, died when she and her boyfriend passed out and their house caught fire. Cancer rates on their reservation, a veritable dumping ground of toxic waste, are abnormally high. “I know I will get cancer,” Alexie tells his wife. She doesn’t disagree. He recently had a benign tumor removed from his brain.
What Alexie eventually came to appreciate about Lillian was her mind-boggling toughness. With a husband prone to binge drinking and disappearing for days at a time, she made and kept a vow of sobriety when Alexie was young. She supported her family by sewing and selling her famous quilts. (The patchwork structure of You Don’t Have to Say You Love Me is patterned after them.) She was one of the few remaining speakers of her tribe’s language, active in tribal politics, and a formidable powwow dancer. She is, perhaps, who Alexie himself might have been if, like the rest of his family, he had never left the rez.
As is often the case when a parent dies, Alexie learned of the many kindnesses Lillian did for others and wondered why she felt able to spare so little of that kindness for him. He also learned that she told him and his siblings widely varying versions of the same stories. “Mom was so full of shit,” he complains to one of his sisters on the phone. “What are we supposed to do with all this bullshit?” “Well,” his sister replies. “You got famous on that bullshit.” Then the two of them laugh, which is how at least three-quarters of his conversations with his sisters end. (The book is dedicated to his four siblings.)
That Alexie bravado is one of the tools he used to jimmy himself out of the reservation, to become the urban Indian everyone (but him) assumed he’d become. He can’t afford to be ritually self-deprecating, particularly about his talents, because his talents are what will keep him from dying as young as most of the boys who bullied him relentlessly at his reservation school. His humor reflects a lifetime acquaintance with absurdity and paradox. The small, lily-white, conservative rural school into which Alexie transferred as a boy became his haven. He was enormously popular; his schoolmates unanimously elected him class president, a memory that still makes him weep today. (Although Alexie admits that he cries easily.) Thirty-six years later, the same town voted overwhelmingly for Donald Trump. What are we supposed to do with all this bullshit? a reader is inclined to ask. Or, as Alexie puts it, “I am a Spokane Indian—an indigenous American—who grew up with white folks who think this country is being stolen from them. Hahahahahahahahahahahahaha.”
But does You Don’t Have to Say You Love Me deliver the heartwarming satisfactions of the sons’ memoirs that precede it? Not quite; if it succeeds, it will be on the strength of Alexie’s own eccentric charm. McBride’s and Schwalbe’s mothers were kind, loving women it is impossible not to admire. Lillian, always coping with the many abuses life dealt her, is harder to like, even if one of Alexie’s ex-girlfriends did say that his mother reminded her of Zsa Zsa Gabor (because she “gets all the attention like a beautiful actress … and she has a fancy accent”). At times Alexie describes doubting that she loved him or that he loved her. He is unabashedly sentimental, but Lillian doesn’t make it easy for him. The tension between her ornery reserve and his penchant for wearing his heart on his sleeve gives this memoir an unusual piquancy. Like all grieving children, Sherman worries that he didn’t do enough for Lillian, and like fewer of them, he resents her for not doing more for him. Fiercely protective, incomprehensibly strong, terrifyingly vulnerable, and, all too often, rejecting, she was, in his life, much like the rez itself—a place he could barely stand to live in, but would never dream of leaving behind.
You Don’t Have to Say You Love Me by Sherman Alexie. Little, Brown.