Grove Press, 1993, 2005.
(242 pages, 24 stories).
You may have heard about this little collection of short stories. Usually I am more skeptical of a book with this much praise. Beside all the printed reviews, I had several people recommend this book with hands rubbing together, that gleam in their eye, that “i found a treasure look,” rather than that other accompaniment “you are so gonna not enjoy this.” Having read The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian I was eager to read The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven.
I was prepared for repetitive themes, images, and characters, and I figured I probably wouldn’t like a few of the stories. The repetition isn’t out of a lack of originality or creativity, but a nice thread to pull a collection into a more complete complex image, more a book than a collection. I think if I were not reading Sandra Cisneros’ The House on Mango Street, Alexie’s book would feel less a collection, but it is.
My edition has two added stories that were cut from the original submission due to their thematic difference and an intro by Alexie (a reflection of sorts). The introduction is good, his humor and his poignancy: his seemingly effortless ability.
There is some criticism regarding literature that comes out of the Northwest: an inaccessibility of language and place (landescape). I am sure it is of a similar complaint of any literature that is so strongly steeped in a region or culture. Some of the lack of access is unavoidable, and really, it shouldn’t be avoided. However, there are moments in some of the stories that alienate the reader—me. Being white (little w), and not of the Northwest, I suppose I should be alien. Unfortunately, I struggle with being alien and not becoming apathetic.
The use of the first person narrator pulls the reader into an intimacy, yet, here, the stories rarely ask for sympathy. They rarely ask for any emotion; only merely asks for a witness; because what do we really know of these lives portrayed?
I get the feeling plenty of the readers know something of what Alexie writes, despite their alien status. Is that part of the brilliance? Like LeGuin’s technique of making the characters foreign to only then allow the revelatory leap of understanding that zings the reader into seeing the overwhelming similarities: the humanness? Not one to often question an author’s intent, but this explanation of brilliance did not come readily to mind with this author and this work. I think we are to see the human condition in the characters in the stories, but I am not sure we are made to identify; most are made to be so concretely individual as to resemble no one.
Alexie is so talented in his construction of imagery, no one character in a story is made to be someone other than themselves. These are stories set in a place, over the span of all time, but I hesitate to label a character as representative of more than themself. A cultural denial?–Despite (or because of) the poetry in the prose, there is a sense of concrete realist construction: this story is as real as any story based on real people or events: look no further: control your fanciful notions and political generalizations.
I tried to give each story a fair pause before moving onto the next. In short stories you learn not to ignore the brief, or even the seemingly simplistic. You only do that with novels. Some moved me. I like Alexie’s humor, but found it less and less toward the end of the book. Maybe I was done laughing about that particular thing, or maybe the depression was taking over. There is no room for pity, but there is plenty of room for sighs, tears, and irritation.
There are a number of the stories I enjoyed. If I were good with a journal, I would have a paragraph per story for you. Alas, you are spared (or robbed). Here are a few I remembering favoring (in order of appearance): “Every Little Hurricane” (the collection starts out strong); “Because My Father Always Said He Was the Only Indian Who Saw Jimi Hendrix Play “The Star-Spangled Banner” at Woodstock” (I like long titles, and it made for a clever and compassionate family portrait); “This is What It Means to Say Phoenix, Arizona” (if you’ve seen Smoke Signals the basics of the story are familiar, but it does differ; and if you love Thomas from the film, you’ll love him more here.); “Jesus Christ’s Half-Brother Is Alive and Well on the Spokane Indian Reservation” (I really responded to this one, in ways I am still struggling for articulation); “The Train Is an Order of Occurrence Designed to Lead to Some Result” (would have included this as required reading for the short story class: excellent); “A Good Story” (an amusement, though I am sure there should be more there that I missed, just the same); “The Approximate Size of My Favorite Tumor” (non-linear telling at its best, and brilliant portraitures of humans; and the complicated nature of love, living, and dying); “Indian Education” (a good read, and the kind of exercise with which I can see a writing professor tormenting students.); and “The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven” (there is a reason this is pulled out as a sampler of Alexie’s work).
The other stories were good, or I am sure they are. Some were just ‘ehh’, and some were ‘I missed something’. I want to like “Flight” so I am going to read it again, when I can sit with it and it isn’t late at night. There are some symbols for which I am certain I am missing the meaning. I know who Crazy Horse is, but I found myself wondering who he was to the author and/or the characters in the stories. I can make a guess, but the story titled “Crazy Horse” had me second guessing. Also, I need to do some research on some of the dances, to catch some of the significances there. In some stories, you can pull from context or Alexie will make allusions, but much of the time everything is, and you know or you don’t. The object/action already encapsulates a meaning before entering the story, not sure how I feel about that, I can be reasonably sure how Flannery O’Connor would feel about it though.
I love Thomas Builds-the-Fire, and I would have liked “The Trial of Thomas Builds-the-Fire” more if it were not for the epigraph: “Someone must have been telling lies about Joseph K., for without having done anything wrong he was arrested one fine morning.”–Franz Kafka. It is of Kafka’s The Trial. The Trial is fresh in my mind from my Modernism class this summer, and I wish it wasn’t, because I started questioning the epigraph as a primer for the story. I either wasn’t, or was refusing to, draw a correlation between the short story and Kafka’s novel. I was also disappointed to see a recognizable epigraph because I started thinking it was a good idea to make up an epigraph (quote and name) to prime a story—that is allowed, isn’t it? As Borges would certainly say Yes, I will remember to do this. Otherwise, “The Trial of Thomas Builds-the-Fire” is a prime example as to how and why looking at time differently works.
Besides the non-linearity of time in most of the stories (which I adore), there is the adjustment for those who fall into another Prevailing-tradition of story telling: the use of threes. Since learning that some cultures use the numbers 4 or 6 (or both, or other) like the 3 I try to maintain an awareness and an interest. Sometimes it is the reason why I pause and reread sometimes. It effects the rhythm of the paragraph—as I read it. In “Imagining the Reservation” the narrator ‘imagines’ six consecutive times at the end of the story; though more is ‘imagined’ in that last section. It appears overwrought. Does the overwrought have purpose, was it intentional? Is it overwrought?
Alexie is a lot of the things they say he is, but I am not sure The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven is his selling point (though obviously it has been). Don’t hurt yourself going out and finding it to read, but you should make some time for it on your reading list. He is good, and you’ll like more than a few of the stories. I am making plans to read The Business of Fancydancing, a book of Alexie’s poetry, in the near future. And of course, I am ever recommending his The Absolutely True Story of a Part-Time Indian, really, sprain your ankle if you must. It is in the Teen/YA section most likely, so you shouldn’t have to run over too many old ladies for your copy.
An aside: If you get the copy with the yellow cover and the excellent picture of The Lone Ranger and Tonto boxing, do not read the quote along the bottom, by The Boston Globe. It distracted and annoyed to the point that if I had not been almost through with the book, I would have taped paper over it. Of all the excellent quotes. There has to be a joke in it somewhere. Are you curious yet? Or perhaps you already know.
Alright, here it is: “Alexie’s prose startles and dazzles.”–The Boston Globe. Tsk, tsk.