Story Sundays: “What You Pawn I Will Redeem” by Sherman Alexie

Sherman Alexie

April 2018: I believe the women who have shared their truths  of sexual harassment at Sherman Alexie’s hands, as described here. This Story Sunday is one of Novel Niche’s most viewed posts. Instead of deleting it, I use it as a springboard to uplift and signal boost the work of Native women writers, the very demographic Alexie sought to oppress and delegitimize. I support native women, and I believe their truths of assault and survival. 

If you’ve been keeping tabs on my Story Sunday posts, you’ll know that I’ve been on something of a hiatus. It wasn’t that I didn’t have brilliant, heartbreaking, resurrecting short stories about which to gush; I did, and I do. This story, in fact, has been at the top of that particular list for several months. I fell in love with Sherman Alexie on the basis of this one story, and everything I’ve read by him since has only confirmed my feverish adulation.

You could think of this entire tale as a curious, quirky escapade with the Lost and Found department of life, and you’d not be far off the mark. It centres on the misadventures of Jackson Jackson, a tragicomically titled Spokane Indian who stumbles across his grandmother’s long-lost powwow-dance regalia in the window of a Seattle pawnshop. Woefully bereft of financial resources with which to purchase it from the shopkeeper, Jackson Squared sets out to earn, beg, borrow and/or magick the money (nine hundred and ninety nine dollars, to be precise), in just one day.

Alexie manages with Jackson Squared, in the space of eight pages or so, more than some writers can achieve with their protagonists in three volumes. We’re never quite sure what to make of him, this hilarious, downtrodden, disarmingly pragmatic drifter who, in the story’s opening paragraphs, says of himself:

“I’ve broken a few hearts in my time, but we’ve all done that, so I’m nothing special in that regard. I’m a boring heartbreaker, too. I never dated or married more than one woman at a time. I didn’t break hearts into pieces overnight. I broke them slowly and carefully. And I didn’t set any land-speed records running out the door. Piece by piece, I disappeared. I’ve been disappearing ever since.”

Jackson’s epic, 24-hours-or-less quest reads like an anti-Galahad’s peregrination, his own personal Grail wrapped up in years of deprivation, cultural sidelining, in a certain inured thick-skinnedness that grows from someone understanding his place in the world. Yet for all that potentially suffocating bleakness, this story is more complex, more delicately modulated with grey areas, than to be thought of as a simple indemnification against Caucasian hegemony. It isn’t so clear-cut, Alexie seems to be urging us, as “Down with the paleface!”, though, certainly, if there are threads of that sentiment woven into the narrative, the author doesn’t shy away from them. There are contemplations of the fate/state of the First Nation peoples that are so bitterly steeped in the darkest humour that you’ll wonder whether you’re clever, or cruel, for bursting out in laughter. Here is one such instance, in which Jackson is amicably interrogated by a policeman friend, who finds the former decidedly worse for wear after a night of drunken carousing that’s gone awry.

“He walked around the car and sat in the driver’s seat. “I’m taking you over to detox,” he said.

“No, man, that place is awful,” I said. “It’s full of drunk Indians.” We laughed. He drove away from the docks.

“I don’t know how you guys do it,” he said.

“What guys?” I asked.

“You Indians. How the hell do you laugh so much? I just picked your ass off the railroad tracks, and you’re making jokes. Why the hell do you do that?”

“The two funniest tribes I’ve ever been around are Indians and Jews, so I guess that says something about the inherent humor of genocide.”

We laughed.”

As you’ve likely surmised by now, Jackson Squared is hardly the noblest narrator you’ll encounter. As I did, you might find yourself musing from time to time on how much he deserves to inherit his deceased grandmother’s regalia, after all. You might not admire him, in the final analysis, or want to emulate his series of patchwork-quilted life decisions… but my goodness, how you’ll want to root for him. Keeping faith with Jackson seems like casting your bets for the ultimate, endearing/bemusing underdog.

I’ve read this story more than twenty times now, and with each fresh visitation I find new lines to love, new perspectives to consider, fascinating and aching hypotheticals to mull over. This isn’t the politically correct tale of the noble savage that mainstream media has come to endorse through laziness and misinformation. Shiftily romantic stereotypes found wandering through Alexie’s prose are shot on sight, ribboned with rapier-sharp witticisms, with an unflinching eye that tends towards truth. Alexie’s prose is one of the best compasses for contemporary storytelling that I’ve ever read, and I shall eagerly follow it over the horizon, hoping, like Jackson Squared, that each day brings with it a little more redemption, a little more illuminating grace, a little more food money and fighting chances than the last.

You can read “What You Pawn I Will Redeem” by Sherman Alexie here. (The New Yorker)

Story Sundays was created by Fat Books and Thin Women as a way to share appreciation for this undervalued fiction form. All stories discussed are available to read free, online. Here’s Fat Books and Thin Women’s Story Sunday archive, and here’s mine. Want to start up Story Sundays on your blog? Yay! Email for details.