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Profane and profound, Sherman Alexie rocks the house of God

Remind me to leave the house a little earlier next time Sherman Alexie comes to town. Never mind that Andrew Zimmern was reading from his weird-food book at the downtown Minneapolis library (when will people get sick of weird-food books?); it was clear from the Lowry Hill traffic jam that Alexie was the night’s hot (free) ticket. I had to park five blocks away, race down dark sidewalks in the rain, and when I finally squeezed into St. Paul’s Episcopal Church (the crowd would never have fit into sponsor Birchbark Books), every seat was taken, except for the one in the very back, next to a group of teenaged Indian girls and Walter Mondale, who cracked up every few minutes. Everyone cracked up all night long, because Alexie doesn’t do a staid literary reading, he does a show.

It’s mostly a comedy show, bookended by some serious Indian drumming (seven men and two boys, camped around a big drum right in front of the altar, yeah). The author came out to a standing ovation, which is crazy, considering that he hadn’t even opened his mouth yet, and that we’re in Minnesota, and that we don’t generally greet writers the way we greet rock stars, but then again, Alexie, who wrote a pretty good screenplay, appears on basketball courts and standup comedy stages, famously shut up Stephen Colbert, plus wrote 21 books and won the National Book Award, pretty much is a rock star by now.

He began by telling the crowd, which by that time included a few dozen more people standing in the back, that the church people had given him permission to be “sacrilegious, blasphemous, and profane,” and he was all that and more. He commented on the whiteness and fatness of Minneapolis, “Capital of Indian, U.S.A.” (white people in the skyways, brown people on the streets), discussed the Kindle at length (Amazon gave him a free one after he publicly its their product at the BookExpo America earlier this year; his wife wrapped it in cellophane to keep it clean while using it for recipes, an act akin to “masturbating with without a condom,”), discussed technology and music (picture a middle-aged Indian in a suit and tie doing the Caboose to a Beyoncé song), recited the Future Farmers of America creed, told his mother-in-law in the front rows a little more than she needed to know about his sex life, and made fun of his audience, whom he described on “Midmorning” earlier that day as being comprosed of educated, upper-class white women. Such readers, he said, had rushed over to the reading from their hot-yoga classes.

After about 45 minutes of standup, he read a selection from his new book, “War Dances” (The New Yorker recently excerpted the same piece), inspired by his dying father’s hospital stay. The funny and the tragic came together, and it was clear: Without one, there couldn’t be the other.

Maybe the hot-yoga crowd does make up the bulk of literary book buyers these days, but in Minneapolis, at least, Alexie is wrong about his fans. The crowd last night was about half male, included a days-old native baby and plenty of people older than Fritz, and many, many variously brown people. There were tons of teenagers, too, breathlessly clutching copies of his books (which have no vampires in them), which says something more, too.

Maybe the white yogis are buying the books today, but look — just look at who’s buying them 10 years from now.

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