The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven
Sherman Alexie (Adult Fiction)
Sherman Alexie’s The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven received the PEN/Hemingway Award for the best first book of fiction and its short story “This is What it Means to Say Phoenix, Arizona” was the inspiration for the 1998 film Smoke Signals, whose screenplay was written by Alexie. This is a collection of short stories which can best be described as autobiographical fiction as Alexie himself admits in the Introduction of the 20th Anniversary Edition, “This book is a thinly disguised memoir.”
Alexie’s novel contains twenty-two short stories (my anniversary edition had two bonus stories: “Flight” and “Junior Polatkin’s Wild West Show”) that detail the dark, hopeless, sometimes comedic, and harsh reality of life on the Spokane Indian Reservation during the 1960s-70s—a period when relations between Native Americans and the federal government were “strained” at best. Alexie acknowledges the push back he received with this stereotypical portrayal of Indians as drunks, recovering drunks, potential drunks, or being six degrees separated from a drunk and matter-of-factly responded to critics with a mere Yeah, but it’s true attitude…and he of all people should know and has more than earned the right to write about it.
All in all, I wish I had connected more with these stories. Maybe it’s just the very nature of short stories that prevented me from bonding with the characters. The stories and its players allowed me to dip my toe into the water when what I really wanted was to totally immerse myself in their world. Just when I thought I was going to be allowed to plunge headfirst into the inviting water, someone would blow the warning whistle reminding me that diving wasn’t allowed, the story was over, and it was time to move on. Denied yet again.
I did enjoy a few of his stories: “The Only Traffic Signal on the Reservation Doesn’t Flash Red Anymore” depicts the futility of trying to escape a preordained future (It’s hard to be optimistic on the reservation.); “This is What It Means to Say Phoenix, Arizona” (easy to see why this was the basis for a feature film), which has Victor Joseph going to Phoenix to retrieve his father’s ashes with storyteller Thomas Builds-the-Fire (Take care of each other is what my dreams were saying. Take care of each other.); “A Good Story” is a story within a story where Junior Polatkin’s mother encourages him to write a story about something good, a real good story (Because people should know that good things always happen to Indians, too.); and “Witnesses, Secret and Not” where the narrator and his father drive into Spokane to answer questions about a man who went missing ten years ago. On their way home, they see an acquaintance on the cusp of full intoxication and decide to give him some money with no strings attached (That’s how it is. One Indian doesn’t tell another what to do. We just watch things happen and then make comments.)
It is obvious that Sherman Alexie is a gifted storyteller and I will definitely be reading The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, which has been on my To Be Read stack for far too long now. And although this particular work didn’t resonate with me (it’s the magic and mystery of books, folks), it is an important work that explores the hopelessness, possibilities, and reality of life on an Indian reservation told through a witty, authentic, and compassionate lens. In the end, I would like to think that the Lone Ranger and Tonto actually hugged it out after their fistfight, but Alexie would probably just shake his head, call me a hopeless idiot, and then tell me one of his stories about how life actually works. I guess there’s nothing wrong with that as long as he lets me dive in afterwards.
* Book cover image attributed to: www.abebooks.com
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