Click here to read the abstract of the story on The New Yorker webpage (this week’s story is available only for subscribers). Sherman Alexie’s “Happy Trails” was originally published in the June 10 & 17, 2013 issue of The New Yorker.
I haven’t read a lot of Sherman Alexie, but I have enjoyed the bits and pieces I’ve read over the years. My main experience with the author was back in 2002 when I watched him give a reading (which was actually a lot like a comedy show). Certainly, from what I’ve read and from listening to him speak, I understand that one of his primary themes is to desentimentalize the Native American past. This story covered that ground as well, but I still found it fresh.
“Happy Trails” is narrated by a 48-year-old man who lives with his mother.
The rest of the world would call me a failure, I suppose, but Indians don’t judge adult Indians for remaining in the family home. Everything — our worst losses and our greatest beauty — is deemed sacred and necessary.
One of the reasons I felt this piece was fresh is shown in that passage. There are two sides to the final line. On the one hand, we have the sentimental versions: the Indian recognizes the nobility in human life, even in failures. But on the other hand, we get the sense that this narrator — even as he believes it — takes this as a kind of cop-out. Each perspective is valid, here, allowing us to consider and attempt to reconcile the viewpoints.
The narrator’s uncle, Hector, disappeared 41 years ago. No one knows what happened to him on the day he tried to hitchhike to Spokane, but by now everyone assumes he was killed somehow. It’s time, the narrator says, to memorialize Hector and give him a decent burial. He and his mother think about the man and his greatness. But then the narrator pulls off the rose-colored glasses:
Actually, Hector was only sometimes great. But we need to make the dead better people than they were, because it makes us look better for loving them.
Interestingly, the narrator has come up with a possible way Hector died. This man, “only one degree removed from slavery,” “only one degree removed from the Indian War,” “only one degree removed from genocide,” was probably killed by some white boys while he hitchhiked to Seattle:
Yes, crime begets crime begets crime begets and Indian man who probably hitched a ride with some drunken, seemingly friendly white boys who killed him.
It’s possible, and it further ennobles Uncle Hector, but the narrator knows, when he’s truly honest with himself, that this is completely unlikely:”Or wait, no.” He’s desentimentalized Hector; now it’s time to desentimentalize his death. The narrator knows Hector would not have gotten in a car with some strange white boys; no, he would have ridden with other Indians, probably some he knew. He probably died because of some stupid argument: “Half-assed warrior against half-assed warrior.”
All of this leads the narrator, as he buries the empty casket, to determine to live a long life. What exactly does he have to forsake to get accomplish this? It’s an interesting question.
Sherman Alexie has a voice to die for, but it’s the honesty that makes me buy the ticket, time after time.
If Sherman Alexie is telling you a story called “Happy Trails,” however, you know it’s also going to have a lot of layers. The gist of it is this: a grown man on the res decides it’s finally time to bury Hector — the uncle who disappeared so many years ago the night he decided to hitchhike to Spokane. Alexie is not both a stand-up comic and a poet for nothing: the story is given pace and structure by the way the man telling it likes to remark every so often, “Best thing about . . .” And thus the deep sorrow and rage of the reservation is given light and wit. The story is also a model of concision: it contains a short history of the last three hundred odd years, or depending how you look at it, the last three millennia, in a page and a half.
The issue of burying Hector has a certain resonance this spring, when the funeral director in Worcester at first could not find a cemetery to accept the body of Tamerlan Tsarnaev. Achilles did not want to bury his enemy either — he wanted his revenge. Revenge and mourning are the twin issues in the middle of “Happy Trails.” Until Spokane Hector is buried, all the old incapacitating ills of genocide remain alive: fear, sorrow, shame, and rage never rest but inhabit the living, so that life is lived in a permanently wounded and shackled state. When the family gathers to bury an empty coffin, they have agreed, so to speak, to let memory rest, and then, as the speaker says, maybe he can set about to “live a long life.”
And so Hector’s family says to his memory: “Happy Trails to you, until we meet again . . .” I like the way that sweet melody is interwoven into the story of a life like Hector’s — that of the lives of so many Indian men, says the speaker.
Indian men live wild-horse lives, running beautiful and dangerous, until some outside force – some metaphorical cowboy – breaks them.
That’s a thousand and one trails right there, but then, with his name, Uncle Hector is woven together not just with his particular tribe of men, but also with the sweet Roy Rogers and his never-never wild west, and then, grandly, with the echoes trailing from the great doomed Hector of Troy and his great doomed civilization. And so this very short story compasses thousands of years, tragic ambition, and the issue of what happens when you don’t bury the hatchet, so to speak.
Another thing that gets me about this story is the way the story-teller is not married, is not a father,as if to really tell stories, some people have to have their concentration about them. As if Alexie is saying that art is really not a family man’s game. Because the speaker is an artist, the way he creates resolution by helping the family lay to rest an empty coffin.
But the key thing that gets me about this story, what makes the one-liners and the history have a heartbeat, is that Alexie is all about the layers in what the Indian really thinks. It’s important to memorialize Hector, it’s important to have him as a memory around which to remember the genocide and the complicated history, but it’s also important to have the empty coffin as an artful means to control such huge and unwieldy emotions.
As the story proceeds, the speaker uses Hector’s memory to release an intense resentment against the white man. But it is hard to live (hard to think) when all that sorrow and rage are continually at the surface and can never be laid to rest.
The speaker persuades us that Uncle Hector was killed by white men. But in fact, after his mother has sung the mourning song, our story-teller tells the truth, admits the truth. White men were probably not Hector’s killers. Uncle Hector was probably killed by other Indians. What do you do with all that sorrow and rage if you keep it at the continual simmer? You take it out on your own tribe. Somewhat the way Achilles prolonged the Trojan War by picking a fight with his fellow Greeks. Best if you can find a way to contain that sorrow and rage, and move on. For Alexie, of course, part of how you stop killing each other, stop killing yourself, is that you leave the res.
In a 2010 interview with Cowboys & Indians, Alexie remarked, “I could walk into any room of people?–?whatever part of the country, whatever politics, whatever religion?–?and I could make them mine quickly” (see here). His art is that he can do just that. And in that little time he has our attention, he gives it his all — pacing, legend, wit, story, history, voice, vista, image, vision — just to wrap my mind around a little of what comprises his art. But I really like the vision.
It’s no secret that Alexie thinks it’s time for anyone still on the res to leave, or at least, to decide to live so that it will be “a very long life.” I love that. I read him for that hope. He speaks to us from within the community of the American Indian, but somehow he speaks for the rest of us at the same time, and despite all, despite all, he’s not ashamed to hope. There’s the greatness.
Being funny lets you go dark places. I’m glad Alexie’s The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian is widely read in American high schools. The boy there speaks the truth — you don’t have to die young; you don’t have to wed yourself to disaster as your bride. You can choose another course. And he’s so funny when he tells you this.
What lasts? Melville does, in his way. Twain does, totally. Alexie’s curse is his apparent simplicity — the way he can talk to anybody, as if that were actually easy, and not an art. Twain, at his peak, could compress the nature of the nation into one boy’s voice. Alexie has that same gift.