THE LONE RANGER AND TONTO FISTFIGHT IN HEAVEN by Sherman Alexie. Grove/Atlantic Monthly Press, 19 Union Square West, N.Y., NY 10003, (800) 645-1267, (212) 727-0180 FAX. 223 pp., $21.00 cloth, $12 paper, 0-87113-548-5
"Survival = Anger X Imagination. Imagination is the only weapon on the reservation." -- Sherman Alexie
Of course this is really an adult book by perhaps the hottest young native author writing at present -- but the subject matter and clear writing make it well suited to hold the attentions of llder teens as well.
If the first book published under the newly combined Grove/Atlantic Monthly Press imprint is any indication, this new affiliation is off to an energetic start. Sherman Alexie's "The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven" is an introspective and amusing tour of life in and around eastern Washington's Spokane Indian Reservation that shines with wit, wisdom, irony, and a fine prose-poetry style.
The twenty-two intertwined stories in the book outline the difficult lives of Alexie's "cousins," both on and off the reservation, whose existence continues solely by the effort of enduring multiple hardships. Alcoholism, poverty, and diabetes combine with depression, despair, and disappearances, in a place where there are no high school reunions because classes have "a reunion every weekend at the Powwow Tavern."
The book begins with a harrowing scene, as nine-year-old Victor wanders through his house while a night-long party swirls around him like a hurricane. A fight erupts between two uncles in the front yard, and the boy watches. "...they had to be in love," he presumes. "Strangers would never want to hurt each other that badly."
In "This is What it Means to Say Phoenix, Arizona," Victor, older now, must retrieve his father's body. With Victor having no money for the trip from Spokane to Phoenix, Thomas Builds-the Fire, the shunned storyteller who talks to birds and rusting cars, steps in and offers to help him. "How did you know about it?" Victor asks. Thomas replies, "I heard it on the wind, I heard it from the birds. I felt it in the sunlight. Also, your mother was in here crying." Several times in the past, Victor has treated Thomas cruelly, now he has no choice but to accept. In a scene reminiscent of Buddy and Philbert in Powwow Highway, they retrieve the body and drive back to Spokane in the father's pickup truck, with gas money from the father's meager savings account. Thomas tells stories, including one involving seeking a vision at Spokane Falls and encountering Victor's father, but when they return to the reservation, they cannot be friends. As a token, Victor gives Thomas half of his father's ashes.
Some of the stories will leave the reader a bit confused. Those having a better understanding of tribal history will comprehend more of the inner meanings associated with feelings about the BIA, commodity supplies, the struggle to stay sober, and taking responsibility for the actions of those not related to you. In a poignant scene from "Witnesses, Secret or Not," a teen gives a dollar to a drunken acquaintance lying in a doorway. To the teen, it's a comic book and a diet Pepsi. To the other it's much more, it's enough for a jug. "One Indian doesn't tell another what to do," he says to himself.
It takes courage to write stories such as these, and yes, anger. It's even hard to tell in the photo of Alexie, whether that's a shy smile on his face or a smirk. If it's a shy smile, the anger shows through in stunning passages such as this: ""James must know how to cry because he hasn't yet and I know he's waiting for that one moment to cry like it was five hundred years of tears. He ain't walked anywhere and there are no blisters on his soles but there are dreams worn clean into his rib cage and it shakes and shakes with each breath and I see he's trying to talk when he grabs the air behind his head or stares up at the sky so hard."
Alexie is a talent with a clear voice. His lyrical stories entertain, teach, and will be remembered.
Other works by Alexie are I Would Steal Horses (Poetry, date not available), Old Shirts and New Skins (Poetry, 1993), First Indian on the Moon (Poetry, 1993), and The Business of Fancydancing (Poetry and Stories, 1992). Grove/Atlantic Monthly Press will publish his first novel early next year. (See long review of RESERVATION BLUES). Reviewed by Steve Brock
NOTE: This and Reservation Blues are available from AISES; all of Alexie's books are available from Oyate. See SYMBOLS page for more source contact info.
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Native American BOOKS, text and graphics copyright Paula Giese, 1996
Last Updated: Monday, March 11, 1996 - 11:37:17 AM