This is the debut novel by Sherman Alexie, who had already put out a near perfect short story collection: The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven a little earlier. I always think about Alexie as being a very talented writer, but it’s interesting to consider that because his output is varied in terms of type, the over all collective oeuvre is a little harder to assess.
This novel begins with the blues musician Robert Johnson making his way onto the Spokane Indian reservation and finding a way to more or less dump his cursed guitar. It’s picked up by Thomas, a young man in his 20s, and as he strums (and becomes both enamored and clearly cursed) he decides that he and his friends, Victor and Junior (all of these names should sound familiar to Alexie readers) start up that band. They’re terrible at first and less and less terrible as time passes, but they fall instantly and often hilariously into the trappings of rock life, as well as the same old trappings of their reservation life. In a series of mishaps, punctuated by song lyrics as they write, we see the band go through a number of adventures and misadventures.
As happens in all of Alexie’s writings, but especially the early stories, there’s a real capacity for a story or a moment within a story to say something both oddly funny and emotionally harrowing. So whether it’s the three boys seeing an older drunk man on the side of the road and two of them thinking it might be their fathers before remembering their fathers are dead or having unfounded and unspecific suspicions about Flathead Indians, or any of the numerous other moments that flower in this novel.