The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven, Sherman Alexie. New York: Grove Press, 2013 (20th Anniversary edition, first published 1993).
Summary: A collection of short stories all relating to growing up on a Spokane Indian reservation.
Sherman Alexie was born in 1966 and grew up on a Spokane Indian reservation. This collection of short stories followed a critically acclaimed book of poetry, and so is one of Alexie’s earliest works. In the introduction to the twentieth anniversary edition, Alexie describes these stories as “thinly disguised memoir.” And to be truthful, it has that feel to it. He describes his style as “reservation realism” and in this collection one finds a mix of the starkly realistic and the fantastic.
What is starkly realistic is his portrayal of life on the reservation. Of course there is a strong web of friendships, families, kinship and love relationships. There is the sense of a people attempting to keep the core of a cultural memory together when much of its substance has been gutted. It’s also a portrayal of financial destitution, un- and under-employment, fighting, government issue cheese and housing, and alcohol and substance abuse. Alexie admits that his own father was an alcoholic and that in his extended family only a dozen are currently sober and only a few that never drank.
One of the most interesting characters in this whole mix is Thomas Builds-the-Fire, who in “This is What it Means to Say Phoenix” accompanies the narrator and covers most of the cost of flying from Spokane to Phoenix to re-cover his alcoholic father’s remains. Thomas is a story-teller to whom no one listens. In a subsequent story more on the fantastic, Kafka-esque side, Thomas goes on trial for his storytelling, going to prison for murder as he tells the story in first person of another Indian who had killed two soldiers a century before.
From the absurd, Alexie moves to the sad in telling the story of the death of Samuel Builds-the-Fire, a hotel maid who uses his money to pay Indian prostitutes to take the day off, is laid off, gets drunk for the first time in his life, trips and falls on railroad tracks and does not get up as an oncoming train approaches.
There is the funny and sad. The title says it all in “The Only Traffic Signal on the Reservation Doesn’t Flash Red Anymore.” In another, the narrator talks about his father, who heard Jimi Hendrix play the “Star Spangled Banner” at Woodstock, and whose son would always turn it on for him when he arrived home from a night of drinking. In “Amusements” a young couple at a carnival spot an old drunk from the reservation and load him onto a coaster, on which he rides until he comes to and gets sick to his stomach.
So much of this seems like autobiography. “Jesus Christ’s Half-Brother is Alive and Well on the Spokane Indian Reservation” begins in 1966, chronicles the growing up of a boy dropped on his head (Alexie was hydrocephalic) yet has a fairly normal boyhood while the narrator plays basketball, similar to Alexie’s high school self. “Junior Polatkin’s Wild West Show” describes a young man who went off to Gonzaga, felt out of place and left without graduating. Alexie also went to Gonzaga, leaving after two years, although he completed a degree at Washington State.
Alexie gives us twenty-four stories that explore the life of a people displaced, consigned to make some sense of life in a world they’ve not chosen, fighting addictions that may have been the worst depredation of them all upon their lives. You have accounts of people who want to live, love and make their way in the world while holding onto a cultural heritage, a way of living in the world out of step with the American culture in which they are embedded. It is admittedly one perspective but it does begin to help us understand “the American experience” of these First Peoples and the stark realities of reservation life.
[Note: Adult language and situations.]