PRESIDENT CLINTON looks across the table at Sherman Alexie and asks him the big question. "So," he says, "what do you think the most important thing is for Americans to know about American Indians? What do you think [is] the most important thing American Indians should be doing for themselves, or should ask us to do to change the future?"

This may literally be the first time in history that an American president has asked an American Indian for advice. In this moment, on July 9, 1998, Sherman Alexie is the head of the Indian Nations, the captain of the indigenous basketball team, the first Indian on the moon.

His answer is whisked into the polite clash of needs that is "an hour of conversation with President Clinton about race in America," put together by PBS. Alexie is one of eight racial representatives, and barely manages to get a word in edgewise; much of what he does say is overridden by the busier voices of smoother spokespeople. The hour is very quickly over.

The Toughest Indian in the World, Sherman Alexie's newest short story collection, is an answer to Clinton's question. Fiction is a terrible political tool; or rather, politics makes for terrible fiction. But we have here in our midst an artist whose entire existence is by its singularity a political phenomenon; by now, whatever he chooses to write--or not write--is profoundly political. Alexie is a serious poet; over the course of several poetry collections, short stories, and novels, he has built a language for himself that explores and explicates the world he knows. With The Tough- est Indian in the World, he has taken his dexterity with myth- making and given it a new task: the revision of the American Indian; for every-one else, but mainly for Indians.

The Toughest Indian in the World introduces the ambitious second act of Alexie's career. Having honed a passionate, spiritual history of bleak reservation life in Reservation Blues, The Business of Fancydancing, First Indian on the Moon, and the Smoke Signals screenplay, he now sets himself on creating a new Indian history, unprecedented in literature. The new protagonists--in fact, nearly every character in every story--seem to be defined by a reactive process, built from the inverse of the Indians who have already been written.

Most of the Indians in The Toughest Indian in the World have decided to live apart from reservations. Their stories occur in the context of jobs, colleagues, and modest but tangible amounts of money. Alcohol's presence encroaches on the stories in this book, but every Indian leaves it alone. It's neither a destructive force nor a social lubricant; instead, it's a storm outside the door of the story, a hand-carved hollow in each Indian character.

What remains in the Native American heart after the reservation and its privations have been removed is what this story collection attempts to determine. In "Assimilation" and "Class," two different Indians wordlessly betray and return to their white spouses. When Mary Lynn in "Assimilation" tells herself that her restlessness has nothing to do with her Indianness, but rather with her humanness, her thoughts ring an unmistakably defensive note. The professional Indian writers in "The Toughest Indian in the World" and "Indian Country" are plenty successful, but they have closed some part of themselves, like veterans after a bloody war. The gifted Indian college kids in "Saint Junior" grow up to love each other recklessly, with that massive, heart-swelling love that only Alexie can convey, and that too is a legacy of Indian personal history.

There is a verging moment, after reading the first three stories, when the collection could slide into mere conscientiousness; misapplied, Alexie's careful abstention from stereotype would ruin any fictional reality with this overweening purpose, which is the enemy of fiction. But there are at least three things that prevent this from happening; first is Alexie's utter commitment to his own poetic voice. Second is the fact that Alexie himself is one of those professional Indians whom he describes, and seems to be indirectly engaging in his own struggles. Third is the story "The Sin Eaters," a horrifying nightmare told by a young Indian in the throes of it. That single story carries all the tradition of dystopian racial allegory in its rivers of blood.

With The Toughest Indian in the World, Alexie refuses to abandon Indian as subject and object, or to script in white ciphers through whom he can elicit sympathy from non-indigenous readers. He continues to write as an Indian to whom personal, tribal, and racial history are everything. But Sherman Alexie is now in the position to do more than document the Indian heart--he wants to give it a future, and alter the course of Indian history.

Sherman Alexie reads Wed May 17 at 7:30 pm at Town Hall Seattle, Eighth Ave & Seneca, $5 tickets available at Elliott Bay Books (624-6600).