Channeling Clint Eastwood, Robin Williams, ancient Indian folklore, a nation of inept interviewers and citing previously unmentionable accidents in pants, writer Sherman Alexie's October appearance at the Berkeley Arts & Letters authors series was a near-vaudevillian, belly-shaking laugh fest.
Crossing the First Congregational Church's sanctuary to discuss and read from his "Blasphemy," a just-released collection of new and old short stories, he pointed to an empty chair next to the lectern.
"It's so nice of Obama to skip the debate," he said, referencing both Eastwood's failed, empty chair tactic at this year's Republican Convention and the first presidential debate occurring simultaneously to his talk.
After monkeying with the mic -- Alexie rising and sinking fiendishly while a techie desperately lowered and lifted the instrument -- the celebrated novelist, poet, screenwriter, and stand-up performer was rolling.
"I'm in a good mood because I'm at the start of the book tour," he boasted. "By November, I will be a bitter, bitter, (expletive)."
Like an R-rated charm bracelet exploding from its clasps, Alexie spews gem-like nuggets laced with profane beads. It's a trick to quote him in a family-friendly way, a fact he readily acknowledged and later defended, when three people departed.
"In order to be a great person, certainly to be a great writer, you have to be able to say anything," he proclaimed. "You have to
To drive the point home, Alexie gave a mini-lecture on losing control of one's Number Two.
A hilarious and disastrous encounter with spoiled hummus was at the base of the story he delivered. Buried in all the giggly details was the essence of what makes Alexie-the-comedian also Alexie-the-winner of enough literary awards to fill a small warehouse.
On this night, as in his books and stories, he was the genie of magical tales that titillate, taunt, terrify and turn tragedy into tenderness -- often, in a single paragraph.
From "Old Growth," about a man who accidentally shoots a stranger, then later digs up the buried evidence and contemplates the man's skull, he read, "It was proof that I had lived and would die without magnificence. God, I wanted to be forgiven, but an apology offered to a dead man is only a selfish apology to yourself."
"Cry, Cry, Cry," which Alexie calls his favorite new story in the collection, returns to the Spokane Indian Reservation in Wellpinit, Washington, where he was born in 1966. It's an assaulting story, with physical and sexual violence chopping at relationships and cultural connections. Impossibly, stereotypes about Native Americans are both denied and validated: a two-sided approach Alexie frequently uses to great comic and dramatic effect.
The story's narrator, dressed in feathers and performing a war-dance while elder Indians stand and trill, symbolized the power behind Alexie's amusing bluster. The final passage reads, "I was dancing for all of the dead. And all of the living. But I wasn't dancing for war. I was dancing for my soul and for the soul of my tribe. I was dancing for what we Indians used to be and who we might become again."
But on a book tour, Alexie is more prone to hilarity than to honor-laced rituals, and his impromptu interactions with the 460-member audience provoked the biggest laughs.
Being bumped off the air waves by passing clouds (the weather in Seattle), musicians (a cadre of rappers at a Chicago station), and a beauty contest winner ("I was thinking Nobel Prize winner, Supreme Court justice, when I was told it was Miss Arizona replacing me," he exclaimed), had people howling with laughter.
And reacting to what he described as "a brutal, brutal Nazi racist" interviewer with an "empathetic, melting face," Alexie relished sharing a short list of all-time loathsome questions.
"He was asking things like, 'Do you have an Indian name?' And 'Have you ever ridden a horse?'" he snarled.
In Cleveland, a woman older than the hills -- or in Alexie land, older than the apples kids dry on windowsills, before turning them into dolls -- asked, "What do you think of Emily Dickinson's poems?"
Even his reminder that he was there to speak about his book on Native Americans did not deter. Amending, she asked, "What do Native Americans think of Emily Dickinson?"
Showing his impeccable ear, as attuned to his audience as his literature is to readers, Alexie closed with a heartfelt thanks and an embraceable promise.
"Thank you for sticking with me in this tumultuous time in publishing," he said. "I've been working on a sequel to "The Absolutely True Story of a Part Time Indian." (His controversial, award-decorated novel for young people.) I'm only four years past the due date, but I've unlocked it, finally!"