The temperature downstairs at Durham’s Regulator Bookshop last Tuesday was steamy enough to wilt the pages of even the toughest hardbacks on the shelves. Not surprising, given that every available square inch of space was packed with eager listeners.

We were there to hear author Sherman Alexie read from his new short story collection Ten Little Indians. Alexie, who also wrote the screenplay for the indie film Smoke Signals, is a hot ticket right now among the literati. (As he said from the podium, “In the book world, I’m Brad Pitt.”)

Alexie’s star status had me prepared to dislike him (this, despite my having devoured every short story he’s ever published in The New Yorker) or at least, find him remote. But from the second he appeared, he had us laughing and shaking our heads in that way you do when a close friend teases you: You can’t get mad even when they push your buttons because they’re so darned charming.

His preference for the label “Indian” is just one of the ways Alexie defies P.C. expectations and continually takes the socio-cultural mickey. During his reading and the discussion afterward, nobody was safe from his ribbing. Among the evening’s targets: vegetarians, overprotective moms, white liberals, Republicans, Democrats, white liberals, New Age spiritualists, Hollywood producers, white liberals, gay people, straight people, George W. Bush, Laura Bush, feminists, al-Qaeda terrorists–and did I say white liberals?

It wasn’t just the heat that left us breathless. Alexie’s reading had all the roller-coaster pacing of a standup comedy routine. He even had us shivering in fear of the possibility of “audience participation,” as he smartly skewered the few brave souls who dared to ask questions. (To the woman who wanted to know what his mother had thought when she read his intimately observed story about a teenager and his mom, Alexie said, “Oh this isn’t about my mother. See that little space at the top of the cover page that says fiction?!”)

Reviewers and fans have remarked on Alexie’s ferocious wit. But what hasn’t gotten as much attention is his amazing composure–both on the page and off. As my friend Charisse said as we stood panting on the street corner after the reading, “How is it that someone so young can be so self-possessed?”

It’s what gave Alexie the nerve to describe his rage at the instant sainthood conveyed on people killed in the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. “Come on!” he roared. “Do you mean to tell me there wasn’t one person in those buildings who wasn’t an incredible a*&hole?!” Not a safe thing to say, even in a crowd this sympathetic.

Some minutes later, he talked about how the fundamentalism that inspired the Sept. 11 attacks has led him to reject “tribalism” of any kind. “My only tribe now is the poor and the powerless,” Alexie said as applause broke out in bursts around the room.

I came away from the reading convinced that what’s at the core of Alexie’s humor is not bitterness, as some reviewers have said, but a healthy respect for human frailty. Though he described himself as someone who sees the worst in people, I think his real gift is that he sees what’s real in people; what’s genuine behind the assumptions and the labels and the mixed-up messages we often send each other.

There’s a long tradition in the literary world–and elsewhere–in which those who are regarded as “other” become our keenest observers, reflecting back the things we find hardest to admit about ourselves. It can hurt, but it can also heal.

He’d hate me for saying this, but maybe there is a touch of the shaman in Sherman Alexie.