Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven

Posted: November 25, 2009 in 1
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Sherman Alexie

Review © 2009 G.N. Jacobs

What is going on? I read a collection of short stories by a Native American writer and there isn’t a single reference to a skinwalker or Wendigo. For a writer that dresses his angst and memories, however distorted, up in starkly drawn archetypes that scare, thrill and/or amuse, a mostly autobiographical collection of short stories from a segment of America that is almost as alien to me as the Barsoom culture of C.S. Lewis’ Space Trilogy seems like a stretch. But, then I read everything and worry about what sticks later.

Sherman Alexie writes of his childhood on the Spokane Indian Reservation by turns far more stark than anything that bubbles out of my mind, but maintains a love and reverence for the people in his life to whom he extended the Names Changed to Protect the Guilty status. I suppose the operative rule here is that we grow up loving our families, even if they are drunks. It takes a lot to wipe clean the psychic scars of our families.

Lone Ranger causes a an intense emotional rollercoaster for the reader as much for the shared debate about our history as for the simple power of the stories about Indians on a reservation that lived the stereotype of drunks with no hope. We write what we see around us and Alexie saw fistfights on the lawn, fathers abandoning their children and a river of alcohol. Is it stereotype or autobiography?

The best writers say F-O and make their daily page quotas. It is not the writer’s job to second-guess his life for appropriate review by people who weren’t there. Even still, I couldn’t decide if I wanted to weep for a culture destroyed by greed or simply shrug and let people figure out on-their-own that everyone has choices to make.

Alexie uses some clever shifts in narrative style to tell interlocked stories about the Spokane Reservation and the people with whom he grew up. Sometimes the narrator or focus character is Victor and sometimes Junior Polatkin. Both of these voices tell tales of alcohol-fueled stupidity mixed with echoes of the great stories of the tribe’s past and a deep all abiding passion for basketball.

We all have our booze stories and we all think ours are the greatest until we read stories like these created by professionals. I haven’t directly experienced fistfights between family members like in “Every Little Hurricane.” I only heard about them a few days later. But, even on Alexie’s reservation good things happen.

Boys skip school to visit grandfathers. Friends share beer, good times and fantastic stories. Mothers make fry bread and make do with government cheese. The people endure. The stories endure, especially when told by Thomas Builds-Fire, a storyteller like Cassandra to whom no one listens. The dream-stories of Indians winning against the whites or at least gaining a more favorable place in society serve as a counterpoint to the misery and despair of reservation life. Indians steal horses and play cowboy songs and hold their own.

There were some concepts missing from Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven at least in the versions of this book that have been circulating since 1993. I thought the basketball was given short shrift in the stories that passed muster with the editor. Hoops only serves as a symbol of loss, the one good thing that goes away because Indians drink too much and wallow in their sadness most palpable.

Sure, there are a few scenes of characters picking up the rock and shooting hoops until they heal. But, mostly Alexie violates “Show don’t Tell” when it comes to the basketball. One of these stories really needed to take place on the court. Most of us have tried to play sports; we would recognize ourselves in the low post sweat running freely making a commitment that the gomer with the ball will never score on us.

But, we are only told how important basketball is for building and supporting what remains of Spokane Reservation society and culture. It’s a flaw in an otherwise beautiful book where the reader can smell the whiskey, puke and meat not even a dog would touch. I could hear the laughter of Indians trying to hold onto what remains of their dignity. I really wanted to learn more about how Victor and/or Junior stood their ground in the ninety-foot arena, but I was only told “an Indian probably was shooting hoops before Naismith invented the game.”

All in all Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven was a very good reason to learn literacy: that we get to learn new things we would never experience. So maybe their will be a better hoops story in the thirtieth anniversary version of the book.




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