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The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven

July 13, 2011

How can anyone fail to be charmed by a writer who makes fun of himself for wanting to be “one of the major lyric voices of our time” by imagining how it would sound on his answering machine:
“Hello, you’ve reached Sherman Alexie, one of the major lyric voices of our time. Please leave a message if you’re not too intimidated and I’ll get back to you, with my versatile and mellifluous voice, as soon as possible.”
Not me, that’s for sure. This is the third Alexie book I’ve read. I started with a YA novel which had references to racism that I didn’t really understand, progressed to a book of poetry I liked much better, and ended up with this collection of short stories, which garners good will from the title image alone—The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven.

And yet, despite the welcome honesty of a young writer who has the courage to admit that his first collection of short stories is at least partly autobiographical, I alternated between being charmed and irritated. Perhaps it’s inevitable that any first collection by a serious writer is a bit pretentious. There are certainly enough New-Yorker-minimalist-style stories in here to set my teeth on edge. You want an example? Fine, here’s one:
“How can we imagine a new language when the language of the enemy keeps our dismembered tongues tied to his belt? How can we imagine a new alphabet when the old jumps off billboards down into our stomachs? Adrian, what did you say? I want to rasp into sober cryptology and say something dynamic but tonight is my laundry night. How do we imagine a new life when a pocketful of quarters weighs our possibilities down?”

Alexie is a good enough writer that he doesn’t let himself fall into any one particular literary style, however. And his humor takes me a long way toward getting through his one-note theme about how the world is racist towards Indians:
“Once, a Washington State patrolman stopped Norma and me as we drove to Spokane to see a movie, get some dinner, a Big Gulp at 7-11.
‘Excuse me, officer,’ I asked. What did I do wrong?’
‘You failed to make proper signal for a turn a few blocks back,’ he said.
That was interesting because I had been driving down a straight highway for over five miles. The only turns possible were down dirt roads toward houses where no one I ever knew had lived. But I knew how to play along with his game. All you can hope for in these little wars is to minimize the amount of damage.
‘I’m sorry about that, officer,’ I said. ‘But you know how it is. I was listening to the radio, tapping my foot. It’s those drums, you know?’”
It’s hard to believe that stuff like this happened anywhere in this country in the twentieth century, but it surely must have, because Alexie is full of stories like that one.

Here’s another modern-Indians-are-beleaguered passage:
“It’s hard to be optimistic on the reservation. When a glass sits on a table here, people don’t wonder if it’s half filled or half empty. They just hope it’s good beer. Still, Indians have a way of surviving. But it’s almost like Indians can easily survive the big stuff. Mass murder, loss of language and land rights. It’s the small things that hurt the most. The white waitress who wouldn’t take an order. Tonto, the Washington Redskins.”
I think most of us get that it’s the small things that hurt when we’re in the minority. Maybe part of what this collection of short stories is for is to make people like me realize that Indians are such a minority that I have no idea what their life out west on and around the reservations is like.

Here’s my favorite passage, though, the one that makes up for the pages of oh-woe-is-me and pretentious minimalist-sounding fiction:
“The hospital released me because they decided that I would be much more comfortable at home. And there I was, at home, writing letters to my loved ones on special reservation stationery that read: FROM THE DEATH BED OF JAMES MANY HORSES, III.
But in reality, I sat at my kitchen table to write, and DEATH TABLE just doesn’t have the necessary music. I’m also the only James Many Horses, but there is a certain dignity to any kind of artificial tradition.
Anyway, I sat there at the kitchen table, writing letters from my death bed, when there was a knock on the door.
‘Come in,’ I yelled, knowing the door was locked, and smiled when it rattled against the frame.”

And here’s my other favorite passage, from a story about two characters on a road trip after the death of a father:
“All through Nevada, Thomas and Victor had been amazed at the lack of animal life, at the absence of water, of movement.
‘Where is everything?’ Victor had asked more than once.
Now when Thomas was finally driving they saw the first animal, maybe the only animal in Nevada. It was a long-eared jackrabbit.
‘Look,’ Victor yelled. ‘It’s alive.’
Thomas and Victor were busy congratulating themselves on their discovery when the jackrabbit darted out into the road and under the wheels of the pickup.
‘Stop the goddamn car,’ Victor yelled, and Thomas did stop, backed the pickup to the dead jackrabbit.
‘Oh man, he’s dead,’ Victor said as he looked at the squashed animal.
‘Really dead.’
‘The only thing alive in this whole state and we just killed it.’
‘I don’t know,’ Thomas said. ‘I think it was suicide.’
Victor looked around the desert, sniffed the air, felt the emptiness and loneliness, and nodded his head.
‘Yeah,’ Victor said. ‘It had to be suicide.’
‘I can’t believe this,’ Thomas said. ‘You drive for a thousand miles and there ain’t even any bugs smashed on the windshield. I drive for ten seconds and kill the only living thing in Nevada.’
‘Yeah,’ Victor said. ‘Maybe I should drive.’
‘Maybe you should.’”

If there’s a single thing I’ve learned about reading Sherman Alexie, it’s that while I’m continually zigzagging being charmed and being irritated, I’m never indifferent. It will be interesting to hear what the other members of the Imaginary Friends Book Club have to say about their experience of reading these stories, and I’m curious to know if anyone else who has read any of Alexie’s short stories has this same kind of love/hate relationship with them.

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13 Comments leave one →
  1. July 13, 2011 11:17 am

    Sigh.

    I am trying my damnedest to finish this book. I don’t vacillate between charmed and irritated, I’m just irritated and I’d rather go do laundry, scoop cat litter, name any other obnoxious household chore than read more of this.

    But I did get the book and I am trying to finish it. Really I am.

    • July 14, 2011 9:09 am

      A lot of people react more to literary pretention than I do. I’m pretty used to it.

  2. freshhell permalink
    July 13, 2011 11:24 am

    I haven’t finished all the stories yet (I’ve gotten distracted by a great book I got for my birthday – more about that later) and plan to post something on Friday. I felt similarly but my favorite stories in the book were ones that are actual stories – something happens. The others, while beautifully written with wonderful images, seem unfinished, just snippets of something bigger. I think as a whole there’s more to the book than its stories separately.

    And loved the very passages you’ve included here. I laughed a lot. But, it also struck me as a work of a beginner. Which is obnoxious, perhaps, for me to say, but that was my immediate impression. And that whole “major lyric voices” things was so funny, I was willing to forgive him pretty much anthing.

    • July 14, 2011 9:12 am

      Yes, I agree; I like the ones that actually tell a story. I think some creative writing programs teach young writers that wonderful images and symbolism are enough, and the good ones learn how to add them to a story, rather than letting them stand on their own. And I agree that some of these stories do sound like a very young writer.

  3. July 13, 2011 12:05 pm

    I’m a bigger fan of Alexie than you, although I enjoy his novels more than his short stories! I think watching the movie first helped me love this collection; I heard that actor’s voice in my head while I read them.

    I also don’t mind the constant presence of racism in the stories since, well, it’s a constant presence in those characters’ lives. In fact, I’m reading a book right now that talks about why policemen now have the right, granted by the Supreme Court, to pull over drivers based on race, no other suspicion, and bully them into consenting to a search. I can’t believe the Supreme Court is behind that nonsense! It’s so horrifying I wouldn’t believe it if there weren’t a ton of references.

    • July 14, 2011 9:14 am

      There’s a movie? And there’s such a law? (Who says fiction doesn’t have an effect on the world?)

      • July 14, 2011 9:28 am

        Yep, the movie is Smoke Signals; he wrote the screen play too. It’s only loosely based on the stories, with same of the same characters. I really loved it! 🙂

        Yes, it’s not a law, but the Supreme Court ruled that there’s nothing unconstitutional about pulling drivers over based on race. So now it’s a right, and no one can sue over it/overturn any trials/throw out evidence/etc. The book is The New Jim Crow if you’re curious.

        • July 14, 2011 12:50 pm

          Thanks; I’ll put The New Jim Crow on my list to supplement the high school reading of C. Vann Woodward’s book about Jim Crow next spring.

  4. July 16, 2011 3:34 pm

    I loved Smoke Signals. I know I’ve read some Alexie but the one that really stood out for me was The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, which I just loved. It’s one of my favorite YA books of all time.

    Alexie’s writing never struck me as overly pretentious but maybe I’ve just read different things. Sometimes he’s really funny, but in a sad way.

    • July 31, 2011 5:19 pm

      He is really funny; that’s my favorite part of reading anything he’s written, so far.

  5. July 18, 2011 8:15 am

    You really must watch Smoke Signals if you like Alexie even a little! It’s a gorgeous movie, one of my favorites, and the screenplay is pretty excellent too. I have a lot of his poetry and a few of his novels; liked Ten Little Indians (also short stories) a lot more than Tonto; haaaaated Indian Killer. To me, what makes his stuff so great is the joy he takes in language, and the way the sad/funny coin keeps spinning around. I think he’s brilliant.

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  1. Tonto and the Lone Ranger « Life in Scribbletown

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