The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven
By Sherman Alexie
Reviewed by Martin Kich
Sherman Alexie is a Native American writer of Spokane and Coeur d'Alene ancestry. His first collection of short fiction, The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven [New York: Atlantic Monthly, 1993], exhibits a comically pointed insight into the deep pathos of contemporary Native American life. The often understated power of the stories has provoked the inevitable comparisons to the work of N. Scott Momaday, Leslie Marmon Silko, James Welch, and Louise Erdrich. Although such comparisons are no doubt intended to be flattering, they also serve to type the work by the ethnicity and the narrowly-related literary heritage of the writer and thereby, ironically, to restrict the levels on which the work might be appreciated.
In this manner, young African-American writers labor in the shadows of Richard Wright, Ralph Ellison, James Baldwin, and Ishmael Reed, and younger Jewish-American writers, in the shadows of Isaac Bashevis Singer, Saul Bellow, Bernard Malamud and Philip Roth. The younger writers inevitably work both within and against the sub-genres defined by the writers of stature, finding that their natural subject matter serves to pigeon-hole their work even as they seek fresh integrations of technical and thematic elements out of the broader traditions of the American novel. Thus, Latino writers of the next generation may find the current stature given to the sub-genre by the work of such writers as Rudolpho Anaya, Oscar Zeta Acosta, and Oscar Hijuelos will serve both to bring their work to notice and to measure it according to rather automatic notions of what Latino literature should be concerned with and how it ought best to approach and express those concerns.
I do not mean to minimize the elements of Alexie's collection that place it in the sub-genre much defined by the work of Momaday, Silko, Welch, and Erdrich. In Alexie's stories, the detailing of daily life serves to convey the manic alienation, the profound despondency, and the cultural marginality of reservation life. The sensitivity to the pervasive effects of the long history of uneven conflict with Anglo-American culture is expressed in an off-handed sarcasm in conversations between Native Americans and in an reflexive rage barely constrained by an ingrained sense of impotence in confrontations between Native Americans and Whites, especially the police and BIA (Bureau of Indian Affairs) administrators. The lingering awareness of Native American cultural traditions and spiritual beliefs manifests itself in a sometimes whimsical and sometimes bewildered appreciation of the inexplicable in circumstance, in personality, and in their more compelling conjunctions. The Native American sense of myth both fragments and is fragmented by the salient absurdities of contemporary American life as they intrude on the patent absurdity of reservation life.
Nevertheless, Alexie's work also reflects more diverse influences. The narratives move between sensory observation and emotional distortion in a manner reminiscent of Sherwood Anderson's stories, and, indeed, the collection exhibits the sort of near-novelistic unity that Anderson achieved in Winesburg, Ohio. In addition, the stories have the seemingly free-wheeling but actually very selective conversational style, rich in associations, that is characteristic of Richard Brautigan's most effective fictions. In their concentration on the misguided parochial impulse and the enduring appeal of schoolboy athleticism, the stories remind one of Lewis Nordan's collections Welcome to the Arrow-Catcher Fair and The All-Girl Football Team. And, lastly, Alexie shares with such writers as Jayne Anne Phillips and Frederick Barthelme a poignant sensitivity to the odd details in the too-familiar patterns of human landscapes arranged along roads and of personal histories in which indiscretions and tragedies accumulate mundanely like debts and doubts.
There are 22 stories in the collection. Though all of the stories contribute on at least several levels to the effect of the collection as a whole, some of the stories are, of course, more controlled and compelling than others. In the opening story, "Every Little Hurricane," a boy named Victor (who appears as either a focal or a secondary character, as either a child or an adult, in a number of the stories) describes a New Year's Eve party at his parents' house as if it were a hurricane, as if it were a focal incident in the history of storms constituting his family life and the broader existence of the tribe. Because Victor awakens from a dream influenced by television news to the disjointed, exaggerated noises of the party (including the wreckage of a bloody fistfight between his uncles Adolph and Arnold), the references to the hurricane have a literal as well as a figurative quality. The metaphor is, ultimately, at least as real as the sorrows and terrors, the acute sense of dislocation, recycled by the adults in bouts of great dissipation and more lasting disillusionment.
"Because My Father Always Said He Was the Only Indian Who Saw Jimi Hendrix Play 'The Star Spangled Banner' at Woodstock" uses the playing of that song as a recurring symbol of a boy's attachment to his peripatetic father. Lacking the political focus of the Native American radicals described in Peter Matthiessen's In the Spirit of Crazy Horse, the father's intensity has taken him from imprisonment for violence during an anti-war demonstration to an intensive-care ward after a near-fatal motorcycle accident. In "The Only Traffic Signal on the Reservation Doesn't Flash Red Anymore," two friends sit on a porch and observe the signals of the decline of yet another high-school basketball star whose skills might have provided an escape from reservation life. The story has all the oral color and tension of the accounts of those doomed, nearly mythical heroes of the New York playground league.
Several of the stories primarily concern the stigmas carried by Native Americans. In "Amusements," a young Native American couple at a carnival comes upon an alcoholic acquaintance who has literally fallen down drunk. Embarrassed by his condition and yet feeling obliged to rescue him from a certain jailing, they pay the roller-coaster operator $20 to allow him to ride continuously until he regains consciousness. As amazed by their impulsive ingenuity as the quickly gathering crowd of Whites is amused by the spectacle, the couple soon has to flee from the police, who are quick to react to any sort of "Indian trouble." In the title story of the collection, a young man, who is in the midst of an anguished separation from his White lover, wanders into a 7-Eleven in the middle of the night. Knowing first-hand what it is like to be robbed at such a job, he keeps the clerk on edge while slowly selecting and paying for a creamsicle. From other personal experiences, he knows that as a Native American he is immediately perceived as a threat--can be subjected by the police to arbitrary interrogations and general warnings. In the final story of the collection, "Witnesses, Secret and Not," a young man accompanies his father to Spokane, where the father has been questioned annually about the disappearance and presumed murder of one of his acquaintances. The police have inexplicably sustained their interest in this case, though it is hardly extraordinary. The understated narrative suggestively balances the tensions in such motifs as the unsolved crime and racial suspicions, family attachments and cultural malaise, shared experience and guarded personal revelations.
Lastly, in several of the stories, Alexie masterfully manipulates conventional narrative gimmicks and other forms. "A Good Story" reveals in its resolution that the story-within-a-story is in this case the broader story, creating a meta-fictional riddle with broader cultural implications, given the strong Native American tradition of story-telling. Likewise, "The Trial of Thomas Builds-the-Fire" presents a Kafkaesque situation in which a Native American storyteller, whom the BIA has labeled as a troublemaker, is imprisoned for confessing to the "crimes" committed by Native American warriors whose identities he has figuratively assumed in relating the oral history of his people. Ironically, then, he suffers the same brutal fate as those warriors whose resistance to White incursions succeeded in producing only the stories that Thomas Builds-the-Fire relates.
In "Jesus Christ's Half-Brother Is Alive and Well on the Spokane Indian Reservation," the diary-form is employed to reveal the tortuous process by which a young man recovers from alcoholism and recognizes the spiritual truths in the condition of a nearly autistic boy whom he has been given to raise. Similarly, in "Indian Education," the journal-form is adumbrated to indicate a boy's progress from the first through twelfth grades. Despite his academic success, the most lasting lessons are implicit in the baldly ironic chronicle of racial prejudice and self-destruction that makes his graduation seem less an achievement than an accident of fortune, less an indication of greater successes than a basis for more bitter disappointments.