Only Big Mom can help when you've made a deal with the Devil. Robert Johnson, legendary blues man, arrives at the Spokane Reservation looking for relief. Thomas Builds-the-Fire shows him the way and finds himself owner of the great man's guitar. So, with Victor Joseph, Junior Polatkin and Chess and Checkers Warm Water, he hits the road, taking their four-and-a-half-chord rock and blues band to reservation bars, small town taverns, and the urban landscapes of Seattle and Manhattan.
With the same brilliant mix of dark humor, sorrow, and cultural awareness that distinguished The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven (1993), Alexie's first novel tells the bittersweet story of an all-Indian blues and rock-and-roll band. Thomas Builds-the-Fire is the Spokane Reservation's resident storyteller, but everyone there ignores him. Driving around one day, he happens upon legendary blues singer Robert Johnson, who says he's been drawn to the reservation by recurring dreams of Big Mom, an ancient, mysterious woman who lives in the clouds. Johnson, now claiming that he faked his death in 1938, believes that Big Mom alone can relieve the burden he acquired some 60 years ago when he made his famous deal "at the crossroads" with the devil. After Thomas leads Johnson to Big Mom, he inherits the singer's guitar. Touched by its power, he decides to form a blues band, recruiting a guitarist, a drummer, and two backup singers from Spokane and another nearby reservation. Their band, Coyote Springs, soon attracts attention from whites, including New Age groupies Betty and Veronica and Cavalry Records A&R men Sheridan and Wright, who appear to be the reincarnations (or did they ever die?) of notoriously ruthless 19th-century US Cavalry officers. Careening nearly out of control, Alexie's text playfully mixes past and present, fanciful dreams with the harsh reality of a tribe whose traditional livelihood is fishing and who are now stuck on land with dammed-up rivers. His razor wit is at its most poignant when dealing with Indian tradition, hope, and despair as his characters confront white religion and duplicity. All the while, Alexie successfully dances around culture-clash cliches in this fresh, vibrant modern fairy tale. Blues as biting, sharp and timeless as any by Robert Johnson or Bessie Smith. (Kirkus Reviews)