“Clean, Cleaner, Cleanest”
by Sherman Alexie
from the June 5 & 12, 2017 issue of The New Yorker

It’s time for the summer fiction issue, featuring three stories: “Clean, Cleaner, Cleanest,” by Sherman Alexie; “Crossing the River No Name,” by Will Makin (here); and “Show Don’t Tell,” by Curtis Sittenfeld (here).

This post and comment thread are focused on Sherman Alexie’s “Clean, Cleaner, Cleanest.” It’s been a while since I’ve read anything by Alexie. In fact, the most recent was probably “Happy Trails,” which appeared in the 2013 summer fiction issue (see our post here).

I’m curious to see where he goes with this one and am looking forward to your thoughts below!

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By |2017-06-16T21:53:04-04:00May 29th, 2017|Categories: New Yorker Fiction, Sherman Alexie|Tags: |17 Comments


  1. Eric June 2, 2017 at 5:11 pm

    I love reading Alexie when he’s on his game–I find his work affecting and insightful, with a well-honed prose style. In recent years, though, he hasn’t had much to say, and only his obviously autobiographical work has called me back. This was another pleasant but rather forgettable story, but I will definitely read his new memoir of his mother, “You Don’t Have to Say You Love Me”. The preview pages for that book on Amazon are terrific.

  2. Harri T June 3, 2017 at 1:23 pm

    Alexie has succeeded in what he – as voiced in the Cressida Leyshon interview- tried to accomplish. Marie is a saintlike hero of work.

  3. David June 4, 2017 at 9:48 am

    There is nothing groundbreakingly original about this story. It seems to have very modest ambitions, but in the end I found it to be quite successful. Initially I thought of Marie as an object of pity. She has a very unpleasant job and does not seem to have a great life. Then later I started to see her more as an object of frustration. Why isn’t she doing more to try to get out of what seems clearly an unpleasant circumstance? Why does she not find an escape like her friend did? She starts ton appear as a victim of her own lack of ambition or self-respect. But by the end I began to admire and like Marie. She has made what she can of her life with limited opportunities. She does what she needs to get by, finds room for some pleasure, and deals with life with grace. A simple, but enjoyable story.

  4. William June 4, 2017 at 2:24 pm

    This not about the Sherman Alexie story. When I opened my (paper) copy of the NYer to start reading the fiction, I first read the Philip Roth essay. I was entranced. So powerful. So well written. So thoughtful. Now I’m going to read the fiction. How can any of the stories compare to the Roth essay, in either subject matter or style? That is a tall order.

    BTW, interesting that they chose to publish a 15-year-old acceptance speech now.

  5. William June 4, 2017 at 6:25 pm

    This reads more like a Democracy Now podcast then a piece of short fiction.

  6. Roger June 5, 2017 at 2:02 pm

    This piece is mostly devoid of plot, particularly as it dribbles away to its ending. Another “character study” of a not-terribly-interesting character. Yawn.

  7. Dennis Lang June 6, 2017 at 3:43 pm

    Just read this story and haven’t yet read the Leyshon interview referenced earlier. I also can’t compare this story with others by Alexie.
    I thought it was exceptionally beautiful, written with great compassion and empathy. Yes, there is such a quiet, admirable heroism in Marie, a graceful survival that maybe says something to those of us driven by the mandates of achievement and status.
    Marie in her simplicity is that rare thing–a good person–with a profound sense of morality. That’s heroic.

  8. Diana June 7, 2017 at 6:18 pm

    I found this story very touching. Seen and judged from the outside, and from the striving American class perspective, Marie’s life at first might seem constricted, full of drudgery, hampered by lack of education, circumscribed by religion. But in fact, as we see begin to see this life from the inside, it’s clear that her life is, in fact, rich and full. She’s dealt with the whole gamut of human misbehavior and it hasn’t made her bitter or discouraged, in fact the opposite, she doesn’t judge anyone but herself. She strives for and enjoys the satisfaction of work well done. She’s had a long marriage, experienced and given into temptation. She’s enjoyed good friendship. Her strong spirit is nourished by her on-going matter-of-fact dialogue with god in the person of her confessor. She finds forgiveness and grace there. We tend to admire the rich, the famous, the very talented – those who have made a name for themselves in the world, But it is people like Marie that really make the world a better place for everyone. And that is the point of this story, I think. A well earned retirement, social security, a beer on Friday night comfortably watching tv with her husband, an affectionate kiss on the cheek – we should all be so lucky.

  9. Dennis Lang June 7, 2017 at 8:26 pm

    Beautiful reading of a very eloquent story!
    Thanks for sharing it.

  10. Diana June 8, 2017 at 9:26 am

    Thanks Dennis. It was my first-generation parents’ and immigrant grandparents’ story too. And their gift to us – my many siblings and cousins.

  11. Dennis Lang June 8, 2017 at 9:52 am

    Yes, such a wonderful human dignity expressed in this story. I wonder how much of this sense has been lost over generations in our society. Kids growing up in a world and educational system where fulfilling self-interest is a maxim, valued by our accumulation of material things,driven by a preoccupation with social media and self-presentation.
    Now, to tune into the Comey hearing–for another fascinating drama. This one real life. And a President who is very disturbing.
    Thanks again Diana!

  12. Greg June 8, 2017 at 8:06 pm

    Dennis and Diana – You both have illuminated for me the everyday glory of Marie. These thoughts of yours sing out to me:

    “Yes, there is such a quiet, admirable heroism in Marie, a graceful survival that maybe says something to those of us driven by the mandates of achievement and status.”

    “We tend to admire the rich, the famous, the very talented – those who have made a name for themselves in the world, But it is people like Marie that really make the world a better place for everyone.”

    William – I agree 100% with you on Philip Roth’s piece! As a Canadian, after reading his perspective on what it means for him to be an American, I felt the complicated emotions of which William you must experience.

  13. Dennis Lang June 8, 2017 at 9:09 pm

    As always, thanks for the kind words Greg. As I think more about the story, Alexie has created quite a remarkable character in Marie.This third or fourth or fifth rate motel described vividly, the dehumanizing work required of her, yet not only does she maintain her humanity without judgment, she finds satisfaction and fulfillment in the work and in many of those she meets along the way, while enduring the physical toll it has taken.
    I wish I knew a few people like Marie with her attitude and undiminished joy for life.

  14. Rai June 9, 2017 at 3:35 am

    My first impression was similar to Eric’s: pleasant but forgettable. It left me neither cold, nor excited. The individual elements of the story – work at the motel, Marie’s relationship with her faith and the people close to her, her thoughts and feelings – were all very well portrayed, however they didn’t transcend to some greater, lasting impression on my part.

    But after reading some of the other comments here, I’m starting to think differently, being content appreciating the simple, not-overly dramatic narrative and celebrating a character who actually makes the world a better place. Diana expressed it perfectly in her first comment.

  15. Greg June 9, 2017 at 8:12 pm

    Dennis – Thank you for reminding me how important attitude is…..it does indeed make all the difference.

    Rai – Your change of heart feels so good to read!

  16. Eric July 21, 2017 at 3:26 pm

    Since I specifically mentioned Alexie’s new (nonfiction) book, I thought I’d share my thoughts on it here. It was . . . different. Alexie has of course written a lot about his family and his past before, but he’s never spilled his guts quite like he does here. The result is moving, messy, repetitive, gripping, indulgent, and insightful, in more or less equal measures. I’m not surprised that he’s cancelled most of the book tour and slunk back home; the second half reads like a bunch of diary entries from someone spiraling into a nervous breakdown/depressive episode. He also burns so many bridges in the book as to border on misanthropy, which probably didn’t make his tour any easier either.

    Overall, an intermittently brilliant book but certainly not the place to start (his anthology War Dances is probably best for that).

  17. Eric July 21, 2017 at 3:28 pm

    My apologies, the anthology I was referring to was Blasphemy, not War Dances.

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