The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven

I’ve been wanting to try Sherman Alexie’s work for some time, mostly on Eva’s strong recommendation. I had originally thought I would try one of his novels first, but when I got to the library, this collection of interlinked short stories was what they had available, so it’s what I picked up. Those of you who have read more than one of his books can tell me what you think.

These stories all take place in and around the Spokane Indian Reservation. Several of the same characters come and go, including Victor Joseph, embittered by his childhood experiences on the reservation; Thomas Builds-the-Fire, an unpopular storyteller; and Norma Many Horses, a woman whose gift it is to maintain traditions. The stories are linked thematically, too, most of them having to do with the uneasy place of the Indian in the modern white world. There’s a big drop-off, for Alexie, between expectation and reality. I don’t think there is a single story, for instance, that doesn’t have at least one alcoholic in it. The stories drip with alcohol and its effects, from car accidents to fetal alcohol syndrome to general depression. As Alexie says in the introduction, “When I write about the destructive effects of alcohol on Indians, I am not writing out of a literary stance or a colonized mind’s need to reinforce stereotypes. I am writing autobiography.”

Most of the stories also have examples of racism, even when that isn’t the central point of the story. In a small side incident in “The Approximate Size of My Favorite Tumor,” James Many Horses and his wife Norma are pulled over by a cop, who threatens to report them for drunk driving unless they pay him a “fine” in cash. Since the pair know that a judge will easily believe a drunk-Indian story, they fork over the money.

But racism is not the heart of that story. It’s about a man who has been using humor to deflect pain for so long that he can’t stop, even when he’s diagnosed with malignant tumors the size of baseballs. His wife leaves him because he can’t stop joking long enough to accept that some things aren’t funny, long enough to die with dignity. Racism is only one of the things he jokes away, one of the parts of his pain.

And humor — dark, dry humor — is probably what unites these stories more than anything else. The stories were a bit hit-or-miss for me, some of them poetic, experimental, edgy, and touching (“Jesus Christ’s Half-Brother is Alive and Well on the Spokane Indian Reservation,” “Distances,” and “The Approximate Size of My Favorite Tumor” are good examples of these) and others choppy and predictable. But all of them had a fierce humor. Laughing past the liquor store, as it were. I am certainly looking forward to trying more of his work.

Note: I will say that reading these was a little disconcerting because I live in Spokane. He kept mentioning landmarks, but from a perspective I know nothing about (like the way all Indians know that someone is buried up in Manito Park!) That was something I loved.

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18 Responses to The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven

  1. gaskella says:

    I read and enjoyed Reservation Blues by him some years ago. Thanks for reminding me I should read more. I’ll probably go for a novel rather than short stories though.

  2. Jeanne says:

    I read these from much more of an outsider’s perspective, never having been farther west than Colorado (except for CA).
    The first Alexie I read was his YA semi-autobiographical novel about “Junior” who is in some of the stories in TLRATFIH as the high school basketball player; it’s entitled The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, and has a lot of the same kind of humor you describe so well here.
    The second thing I read by Alexie was a recent volume of poetry. I liked it better than the YA novel, and I liked the YA novel better than TLRATFIH, which was his first collection, so my tentative conclusion is that he’s continuing to improve as a writer.

    • Jenny says:

      Jeanne, thanks so much for this recommendation. You are absolutely one of my go-to sources for poetry, so this is something I really value and will look into.

  3. cbjames says:

    I’m going to disagree with Jeanne. I’ve read this volume of stories and a few others along with Part-Time Indian. I’ve not read his novels for adults. From what I’ve read, his stories are his best work. Part-Time Indian had this everything-but-the-kitchen-sink approach that overwhelmed the novel in the end. There were so many issues mentioned and not enough done with any of them. He tends to have the same problem in the short stories, but not to the point that they become overwhelmed.

    Maybe writing is like dressing up, before you leave the house you should always take one or two accessories off. In his novels at least, Alexie wears too many accessories.

    He worked on the screenplay for a wonderful independent film called The Business of Fancy Dancing which I recommend highly. I think he also worked on the film Smoke Signals. He may even have full screenplay credit for these two.

    • Jeanne says:

      I’ll have to look for more recent short stories, then!

    • Jenny says:

      I think the fact that the stories were linked made their kitchen-sink approach less overwhelming. The prose itself is pretty spare, so that helped, too. But sometimes it worked and sometimes it seemed disjointed, so I know what you mean. I’ve actually seen Smoke Signals, and didn’t know he was involved! Thanks for the heads up.

  4. Colleen says:

    The Toughest Indian in the World is one of the best short stories collections I’ve *ever* read, and to me, is Alexie’s best. Read it, read it! :)

    • Jenny says:

      Oh, thanks for the recommendation! I will put it on my list — I generally like short stories and would like to try some more of his.

  5. Eva says:

    Personally, I connect with his novels more than his short story collections (vs just reading one of his stories on its own, which is probably how I should approach his collections but I never can resist). And I say that as someone who greatly loves short stories! I just think that he has room to really run with an idea in the novels, and I love seeing how that plays out. Like you, I find his collections to be a bit more uneven. But I still love his writing! :) Also, you should watch the movie Smoke Signals now: he wrote the screenplay and it’s loosely based on this collection. It’s great fun!

    • Jenny says:

      Thanks, Eva! I really enjoyed your review of Indian Killer. It sounds great and I will probably read it soon. I’ve actually seen Smoke Signals some time ago, but didn’t know he was involved. I would like to see it again now that I’ve read this!

  6. Carin S. says:

    I’ve owned this for years, since I heard Mr. Alexie give a talk back in 2002. I don’t like short stories normally, but I do like interconnected short stories, and so you telling me there are recurring characters improves the odds that I will get around to this one.

  7. Emily says:

    You’re from Spokane?? We’re practically neighbors!

    I read this as a freshman in college but remember almost nothing about it (except, as you can understand, the alcoholism). I keep meaning to give Alexie another go at some point.

    • Jenny says:

      I know, right? I would love to have a meet-up in Portland or Seattle sometime. (Spokane is not exactly a tourist destination. Ask Teresa.)

      I liked this fine, but if you’re thinking in the general category of “Native American lit” I would try Love Medicine by Louise Erdrich or Green Grass, Running Water by Thomas King. Not that I am an expert.

  8. Christy says:

    I think I got halfway through this book back in February, and then quit. I think it was just not the right timing or something – just wasn’t in the mood for it.

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