Monday, June 28, 2021

The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven - Sherman Alexi


Sherman Alexi’s 1993 collection of short stories is one I will long remember. The only other work of Alexi’s I had read to this point was his serial killer novel Indian Killer, so I didn’t know at all what to expect from his short stories. But from its title, The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven (which disappointingly turned out to be the title of one of the stories I liked least in the whole book), all the way through its twenty-two stories, this collection is special. 


One of the surprises I got from the collection is that it contains two or three stories that are probably as good as any short story I’ve ever read. Another surprise is that the collection contains a couple of stories that are definitely among the worst, and least comprehensible, short stories I’ve ever read. As I said…a memorable collection. The interrelated stories in The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven are very dark, and many of them are filled with despair, but they are sometimes laugh-out-loud funny, too. The stories are structured and placed within the book in a way that shares snapshots into the lives of several recurring characters throughout their lifetimes. In style, they veer all the way from the brutal realism to fantasy and magical realism, a style that almost always requires a more patient reader than I will ever be. 


The despair in the stories largely comes from watching the innocence and hopes of young Native American children turn into a passive lack of hope for the future by the time they are in their early teens. The humor springs from the clever coping mechanisms that so many of the mature characters use to make their daily lives tolerable. But lurking in the background, always,  are the addictions to drugs and alcohol that eventually control the lives of so many of the characters the book’s readers first meet as children. 


Here are a few examples of Alexi’s style and tone:


“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.” (From “The Only Traffic Signal on the Reservation Doesn’t Flash Red Anymore”)


“While Victor stood in line, he watched Thomas Builds-the-Fire standing near the magazine rack talking to himself. Like he always did. Thomas was a storyteller that nobody wanted to listen to. That’s like being a dentist in a town where everybody has false teeth.” (From “This Is What It Means to Say Phoenix, Arizona”)


“Victor and Thomas made it back to the reservation just as the sun was rising. It was the beginning of a new day on earth, but the same old shit on the reservation.” (Also from “This Is What It Means to Say Phoenix, Arizona”)


“Still, he drank his coffee straight today. In other yesterdays he poured vodka into his cup before the coffee was finished brewing. ‘Shit,’ he said aloud. ‘Nothing more hopeless than a sober Indian.’” (From “All I Wanted to Do Was Dance”)


Bottom Line: Stories like these, written by an author who observes the culture from the inside (Alexi is himself a member of the Spokane tribe and grew up on the reservation) are more revealing than anything ever likely to be produced by some sociologist or governmental bureaucrat. Books like The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven should be required reading for any outsider who believes he can solve the problems of such a unique culture by throwing money or platitudes at it. Sadly, I doubt that it was read by many/any of them. These stories, of course, were written almost thirty years ago, but there is still a lot to be learned from them and others like them. 


Sherman Alexi photo from book's back cover

10 comments:

  1. I must confess I've never read Alexi. I remember my kids reading and discussing him in high school and I considered reading him then but somehow just never got around to him. I don't read a lot of short stories but the excerpts that you offer here are intriguing.

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    1. I'm a big short story fan, probably have read several thousand of the things by now, and two or three of the ones in this collection are as good as any I've ever read. Alexi is also a poet and a novelist, so there's a lot to choose from...but I plan to avoid any of his magical realism stuff. I was surprised to stumble on to the fact that he was named and shamed by four or five women about three years ago when the Me Too movement was at its peak.

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  2. Great review and I must put this book of Alexi's short stories on my list. I have yet to read him and that's mistake because he's talented but also I have been remiss in reading Native American literature and I have no clue about Native American traditions and what life is like today for Native American people. Sherman Alexi sounds like the writer I have been waiting for.

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    1. I'm fascinated by the Native American culture because of all those people have gone through over the centuries. They, in my opinion, suffered as much as any minority did in this part of the world, and I find it shameful that their story is not better known and understood even today.

      I think you'll enjoy his work, Kathy, because he's frank about all of it...past and present.

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  3. Having already read some of Alexie's work, I snapped a copy of this as soon as I saw it. Now all I have to do is get it off the shelf and read it because I certainly do like the way the man writes.

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    1. I'd love to hear what you think of this one, Cathy. I loved much of it...almost hated a couple of stories, and overall, thought it was near brilliant in conception and execution. I just don't have much tolerance for the magical realism that is so much a part of Latino and Native American literature and storytelling.

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  4. That's such a great title! Totally made me laugh. I'm glad so many stories in this collection are good ones. :)

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    1. Not doubt that the title all by itself would have been enough to make me pick this one up out of sheer curiosity...but I don't remember ever seeing it in a bookstore back when it was first published.

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  5. Having read your review, I am interested in reading this collection. I have wanted to read a novel by this author, but this would be a good start.

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    1. Tracy, this is definitely one of those short story compilations that will stick in my mind. I can easily see why it drew some well deserved attention to Alexie when it was published. I'm looking forward to reading more of his work.

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