Set on the Spokane Indian Reservation in eastern Washington State, The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven is a collection of loosely related stories featuring a recurring cast of characters. In these twenty-two stories, the young male protagonists, usually in their late teens or their twenties, struggle with poverty, alcoholism, and the despair of everyday life on and off the reservation. They also try to come to grips with what it means to be Indian (as the characters exclusively refer to themselves) in the late twentieth century.
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Though these stories have no chronological order, vary wildly in style, and use different narrators, the author manages, with thin plots, sketchy characterization, and “artless” language, to build stories of great cumulative power and understanding. The reader is well advised to read the book through to experience the full effect.
The first story in the collection, “Every Little Hurricane,” describes a New Year’s Eve party as seen through the eyes of nine-year-old Victor. Images of bad weather metaphorically represent the emotional storms of the party, where Victor’s drunken uncles, Adolph and Arnold, fight viciously for no apparent reason. “He could see his uncles slugging each other with such force that they had to be in love. Strangers would never want to hurt each other that badly.” A flashback then recounts a Christmas of four years before, when there was no money for gifts and Victor had seen his father cry in despair. The narration then moves back to the party, with the emotional storm prompting other memories of pain, poverty, and humiliation among the partygoers. In the final scene, Victor crawls between the unconscious forms of his parents, passed out in their bed. He feels the power of love and the family there, and the power of survival.
Another story that explores Victor’s family relationships is “Because My Father Always Said He Was the Only Indian Who Saw Jimi Hendrix Play The Star Spangled Banner’ at Woodstock.” A series of family memories in this plotless sketch describe Victor’s relationship with his father, his father and mother’s unusual love story, and Victor’s father’s relationship with alcohol. All of this is set against the ever-present background of the Native American’s relationship with modern America.
In “This Is What It Means to Say Phoenix, Arizona,” Victor and his lifelong but estranged friend Thomas Builds-the-Fire travel to Phoenix to collect the personal effects of Victor’s father, who has died of a heart attack. In the course of the journey, some episodes in the earlier life of Victor and Thomas are recounted, and their friendship is reborn. Thomas, a visionary storyteller and link to traditional Indian ways, suggests that they throw Victor’s father’s ashes in the Spokane River so that he can “rise like a salmtop top . . . and find his way home.” In the story, therefore, three things are, like the phoenix, reborn from the ashes: the relationship of Victor and Thomas, some small part of Indian tradition, and Victor’s father’s Indian spirit.
Many of the themes and symbols of the book are brought together and underscored in the final story of the collection, “Witnesses, Secret and Not.” Thirteen-year-old Victor accompanies his father on a trip to the Spokane Police Department to answer questions about a man who had disappeared ten years earlier. In the car, they discuss those who have died and those who have disappeared into the cities, but a dangerous near-accident on the ice goes unremarked. They see a drunken Indian man that they know, give him a couple of dollars, and leave him “to make his own decisions.” They are treated cordially but with little respect by the police, who have called the father in to the police station for little reason, requiring a long journey on dangerous, icy roads. Returning home, they join their strong and apparently happy family, the redeeming quality of their lives. The story is simple, even superficial, but in the course of it, the issues of white-Indian relationships, alcoholism and personal responsibility, death and disappearances, and the warm bond of the family are subtly yet effectively explored.
Other stories deal with the narrator’s relationship with a white woman (“The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven”), the trials of schooling (“Indian Education”), illness and death (“The Approximate Size of My Favorite Tumor”), and alcoholism (“Amusements”). Still others adopt a more mystical tone and experimental style to examine the art of storytelling (“A Good Story,” “The Trial of Thomas Builds-the-Fire”), alternate history (“Distances”), and dreams of the future (“Imagining the Reservation”).
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The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven is Sherman Alexie’s first full-length work of fiction. In 1992, Hanging Loose Press published his The Business of Fancydancing (see Magill’s Literary Annual 1993) praised for its mythmaking power to portray the inner lives and unspoken conflicts of Native Americans caught with “one foot in the reservation and the other in the outside world.” In The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven, Alexie continues to write about a native culture whose traditions, such as powwows and oral storytelling, have been replaced by strip joints and cable television. His characters, many of whom first appeared in The Business of Fancydancing, are most often seen sitting on the porch steps of Housing and Urban Development houses, as if trapped by genetic and genocidal footfalls-such as alcoholism, diabetes, self-loathing, all of which have contributed to the dissipation of Native Americans (a population that only in the late twentieth century topped the one-million mark, an estimated 75-90 percent less than when whites first arrived in North America). Not much else happens in this collection. A paralytic sense of stasis strips these stories of dramatic action or conventional, conflict-centered plot. Unlike other writers’ work that is devoid of narrative movement—ennui-driven stories that oftentimes exist entirely within the four blank walls of a room-Alexie’s stories are haunted by what has already happened: not yesterday, or the day before yesterday, but as long ago as one hundred years. Time is stretched elastic in Alexie’s trickster hands. He dramatizes the post-trickle-down plight of the Native American in the framework of a historical past that is still very much alive, though not at all well.
Victor, the protagonist in nearly half of these stories, explains this concept of a living past in “A Drug Called Tradition”:
Indians never need to wear a watch because your skeletons will always remind you about the time. See, it is always now. That’s what Indian time is. The past, the future, all of it wrapped up in the now. That’s how it is. We are trapped in the now.
Alexie’s characters are trapped by a tradition whose “whole lives have to do with survival.” As Alexie once wrote in a “Contributors’ Advice” section of Caliban, “it is our strongest tradition, our longest dance, to remain alive, to survive.” Yet for many of Alexie’s characters, a central question still exists: How do we live? Oras the narrator of “Witnesses, Secret and Not”-the strongest piece in the collection-puts it: “I had to find out what it meant to be Indian, and there ain’t no self-help manuals for that.”
The best stories in The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven shed light on not only what it means to survive but, more important, what it means to live. As W. S. Merwin wrote in his poem “The River of Bees,” “On the door it says what to do to survive/ But we were not born to survive/ Only to live.”
The first nine stories in this book focus on and are told from the perspective of Victor. In the opening story, “Every Little Hurricane,” the reader witnesses through the eyes of Victor the magical, metaphorical hurricane that “dropped from the sky in 1976 and fell so hard on the Spokane Indian Reservation that it knocked Victor from bed and his latest nightmare.” It is New Year’s Eve. Upstairs, Victor’s parents are hosting the largest New Year’s Eve party in tribal history, a drunken celebration that comes to a head suddenly when an argument between Victor’s uncles, Adolph and Arnold, turns into a fistfight fueled by all the bad blood that has ever existed between the two. The story-the storm itself—does not end here. Instead, the winds “moved from Indian to Indian…giving each a specific painful memory.
Victor’s father remembered the time his own father was spit on as they waited for a bus in Spokane.
Victor’s mother remembered how the Indian Health Service doctor sterilized her moments after Victor was born.…
Other Indians at the party remembered their own pain. This pain grew, expanded. …Indians continued to drink, harder and harder.
At this point in the story, the focus shifts back to Victor, a nine-year-old boy who is in bed “watching…
“The hurricane that fell out of the sky in 1976 left before sunrise, and all the Indians, the eternal survivors, gathered to count their losses.”
In the twenty-one stories that follow, Alexie counts down the losses that have shaped an entire tradition of Native Americans. If there is one lesson that Alexie wants his readers to learn, it is this: “Indians have a way of surviving.” Although Alexie is adept at portraying the lives of characters who have for a hundred years been beaten down by the short end of the stick, his greatest gift as a storyteller is his ability to intermix a brand of pathos that can only rise up out of tragedy with a rib- splitting hilarity that somehow always follows a good cry. If it is true that Indians have a way of surviving, then perhaps Alexie has drawn strength and transcended the temptations of self-pity through laughter. Like Samuel, one of two main tale- telling characters in The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven, Alexie is a writer whose stories possess “the power to teach, to show how this life should be lived…
More often than not though, the twenty-two stories gathered in this at times promising collection suffer from a chronically monochromatic stasis. Far too often, Alexie takes too much for granted. The reader is told very little about these characters. One is told virtually nothing physical about their world. There is no shortage of generic references to “HUD houses” and Diet Pepsi-hollow surface details that echo a trend from the early to mid-1980’s, a time when works by young writers such as Amy Hempel, Tama Janowitz, Jay Mclnerney, and Bret Easton Ellis (among a dozen or more other offenders) were plagued by a tendency to place too much emphasis on brand and designer names. What about the intimate, telling details that help bring the world to life on the page? Is the reader to assume what Victor or Samuel Builds-a-Fire looks like? If so, based on what?
Most readers carry a few basic expectations when they approach a work of fiction. At the very least, they intend to access a world that has been fully imagined and re-created by the writer-a fictional landscape that has, as Raymond Carver was fond of pointing out, “lines of reference to the real world.” In The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven, Alexie fails to draw the reader consistently into his world, a world wherein characters live each day by the credo “We just watch things happen and then make comments. It’s all about reaction as opposed to action.” Though it may be true that the characters in this collection spend their days watching things happen, Alexie neglects to infuse them with the heightened powers of observation that are necessary to make a piece of fiction sing with both clarity and insight. It is possible to build stories around moments or situations in which action is subordinated in favor of reaction or voice. In order to do this successfully, however, a writer must rely on some kind of original (not to be confused with experimental) stylistic maneuver to propel the narrative-to impel the reader into the narrative.
There is, undoubtedly, a strong lyric talent lurking in this book. At the age of twenty-seven-an age when many American writers are still enrolled in a graduate writing program-Sherman Alexie has produced a body of work that deserves to be noted for its flawed promise. One can only hope that Alexie’s next book is fleshed out with concrete details of life as it is seen and reseen through the eyes of a writer whose limited scope has plenty of room left to grow.
Three of the longest, most fully developed stories in this collection-“Jesus Christ’s Half-Brother Is Alive and Well on the Spokane Indian Reservation,” “The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven,” and “Witnesses, Secret and Not”-serve as indications of what a young talent such as Alexie is capable of achieving when he is working at the height of his powers. In each of these stories Alexie allows his characters to set foot outside the limits of the reservation. By doing so Alexie is better able to dramatize the one central conflict with which his characters all seem to be struggling-a conflict that is articulated best by Samuel Builds-A-Fire, a storyteller whose stories have been silenced by a burgeoning indifference, because “the younger people on the reservation had no time for stories”: “At the halfway point of any drunken night, there is a moment when an Indian realizes he cannot turn back toward tradition and that he has no map to guide him toward the future.” In the title story, James Many-Horses tells of a time when he worked and lived in Seattle with his white girlfriend. One day he realizes, though, that he can never feel at home away from the Spokane Indian Reservation. Yet once he returns home, he resumes his position on the couch, back to doing nothing, ignoring his mother’s pleas to find a job. For months he resigns himself to the inescapable wisdom of “an old Indian poet who said that Indians can reside in the city, but they can never live there.” He eventually reaches a compromise with himself and the world outside the reservation: He finds a job in nearby Spokane- “working at the high school exchange program… typing and answering phones”-still close enough to feel at home. Still, at the story’s end, he is left wondering “if the people on the other end of the line know that I’m Indian and if their voices would change if they did know.” It is clear that James Many-Horses is trapped by the paralyzing, paradoxical realization that “he cannot turn back toward tradition and that he has no map to guide him toward the future.”
It will be interesting to watch where Sherman Alexie’s talents take him in the future. The best stories in this collection confirm that this writer has something important to say. One may hope that in the coming years he will come to realize that in order to tell a story, he must first learn how to see.
Alexie, Sherman. Interview by Dennis West and Joan M. West. Cineaste 23 (1998): 28-32. Alexie responds to questions about the similarities and differences between his novel The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven and his movie Smoke Signals. His comments on the autobiographical elements of both are particularly interesting.
Egan, Timothy. “An Indian Without Reservations.” New York Times Magazine, January 18, 1998, 16-19. Profiles Sherman Alexie and his Indian background. Covers Alexie’s comedic look into the hardships of being a Native American; his vocal attacks on author Barbara Kingsolver; the making of film versions of his books; and the life on the reservation where he was raised.
Low, Denise. Review of The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven, by Sherman Alexie. American Indian Quarterly 20 (Winter, 1996): 123-125. Low discusses the postmodern characteristics of Alexie’s novel, focusing on his use of humor and irony. She praises the book for its deft mingling of popular and Native American cultures.
Price, Reynolds. “One Indian Doesn’t Tell Another.” The New York Times Book Review, October 17, 1993, 15-16. Price, a short-story writer himself, finds moments of monotony and obsessive gloom in some of Alexie’s stories. He also expresses disappointment at the spare plots and lack of detail, which others might consider Alexie’s mythic voice. Finally, though, he praises the “lyric energy” and “exhilarating vitality” of these stories and looks forward to a more mature, broader vision from the writer.
Schneider, Brian. “The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven.” Review of Contemporary Fiction 13 (Fall, 1993): 237-238. This review focuses on Alexie’s use of myths and mythmaking to describe and support the Native American culture. Schneider especially praises Alexie’s ability to juxtapose humor and pathos with brutally honest prose.
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Velie, Alan R. “World Literature in Review: Other European andf American Languages.” World Literature Today 68 (Spring, 1994): 407. Favorable review of The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven. Velie compares Alexie’s novel to Louise Erdrich’s Love Medicine, pointing out the similarities in characterization and the use of humor. Concludes that “Alexie has turned the lives and dreams of the people of his reservation into superb literature.”