Why do basically intelligent people do destructive things?

“War Dances” by Sherman Alexie, c. 2009, Grove Press, $23, 209 pages.

  • Monday, October 12, 2009 6:59pm
  • Life

“War Dances” by Sherman Alexie, c. 2009, Grove Press, $23, 209 pages.

You know you shouldn’t have done it.

It wasn’t a good idea, right from the get-go, but you couldn’t help yourself. You didn’t do it because it was fun (although it was) or because it was profitable (although it was) or because it would benefit your family (definitely not).

All you can say is that there was some cosmic, irresistible pull somewhere in your DNA, some brain-blip that overrode all good and decent thought processes and there you were: doing the very thing you knew you’d pay for sooner or later.

Why do basically intelligent people do really destructive things?

In the new book “War Dances” by Sherman Alexie, you’ll ponder that same question in a series of short stories and free-verse.

In these tough times, many of us have learned that we’d do a lot of undesirable things to make a buck. But would you allow your morals to be compromised for the sake of your job?

In “Breaking and Entering,” a young man’s freelancing career gets him deeper into trouble after he accidentally kills a young thief and his discomfort only causes him to make things worse.

In the title story, “War Dances,” an old man lays dying in the hospital of diabetes and alcoholism, “natural causes for an Indian.” His son, a father of sons himself, watches, knowing that a tumor lurks in his own brain.

“If it is true that children pay for the sins of their fathers, is it also true that fathers pay for the sins of their children?” So asks “The Senator’s Son” as he ponders the collapse of his father’s career.

When the son, out for an evening with friends, assaults two gay men, he worries that his father’s powerful office may not be enough to fix what father and son have done.

And a man who can’t get enough of beautiful women can’t forget a stranger in an airport in “The Ballad of Paul Nonetheless.”

The stranger was a looker, but everyone agrees that Paul’s wife is the most beautiful woman in the world. The trouble is, Paul is no longer attracted to her and he can’t tell her why.

Usually, when one reads a story, it’s expected that there will be some highs and some lows and that you’ll come away with at least a semi-happy ending or an ending of some satisfying sort.

Not so in “War Dances.” This book of stories and poems just made me darkly sad and very unfulfilled.

I truly didn’t like, nor did I feel particularly sympathetic to, most of the characters in Alexie’s stories. The free-form verses, with a few exceptions, seemed pretty arcane to me. And I hated that most of the stories just…ended, as if there were no more words available to tell.

If you’re looking for a reason to retire to the sofa and brood, “War Dances” will help put you in that frame of mind.

But if you want a happy story for a chilly day, dance away from this book.

The Bookworm is Terri Schlichenmeyer. Terri has been reading since she was 3 years old and never goes anywhere without a book. She lives in West Salem, Wis., with her two dogs and 9,500 books.

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