by Ayesha Zahid, University of Texas-Pan American
Sherman Alexie weaves powerful, humor-ridden tales of adventures (and misadventures) in the Spokane Indian Reservation in his 1993 short story collection, The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven. While Alexie’s work unabashedly jabs at issues surrounding race, poverty, and alcoholism, it does so with poignant humor and style. The stories seem to become somewhat autobiographical, but it is important to remember that Fistfight is, first and foremost, a piece of fiction. Alexie’s collection covers both solemn and lighthearted stories, ranging from one tipi to the next, from one Indian cousin to another.
The stories are largely centered around the Spokane reservation, although characters like Junior and Thomas Builds-the-Fire are shown traveling to other places and taking a piece of the reservation with them as they go. This piece is what Alexie highlights loudly from personal experience. As a Spokane-born author, is it his own experience he takes and molds into outrageously realistic tales to share with his audience.
Kathryn MacKay, a professor of History at the Weber State University, stated, “Writing became a means to perpetuate tradition in the face of cultural disintegration,”—which goes back to the problem-roots Alexie addresses repeatedly in his work: the fact that the Indian identity has been showered with cracks and potholes, but that these cracks and potholes are self-repairing. They fill themselves up with plenty of alcohol and laughter: two aspects of reservation life Alexie generously alludes to. One of his more recent works, The Absolutely True Diary of a part-Time Indian (2007 National Book Award for Young People’s Literature), liberally mentions alcohol and drunk habits on the reservation. I read it a few years back and, comparing it to Fistfight, wondered whether there was too much mention of alcoholism in his books. If this is a stereotype for reservation Indians—I thought to myself—why is he perpetuating it over and over?
Alexie touches on this particular criticism in his introduction to Fistfight. He mentions that he is “dealing with stereotypical material.” But he also states he “can only respond with the truth.” As a result, when we read of the drunken characters or of those characters in love with the drunks, we are reading Alexie’s version of the truth, whether it falls in line with stereotypes or not. He mentions, “I am writing autobiography,”—not in the sense of the stories being factual or memoir-like, but in that the experiences are based on what was considered the truth in the Spokane reservation.
Alexie’s attitude towards the truth complements the distinction between stereotypes and the truth. Sometimes the two ideas slink into each other’s territories and stay there for a while. He does not write to glorify the effects of alcohol on the residents. It is part of his process to make the stories real. If I were to begin writing a collection of stories about Sufis residing in Punjabi villages, and conveniently leave out the mention of opium because it portrays my people negatively, I would be lying to myself and the reader. We tell stories not because we can, but because we must. When we put a little of ourselves in the stories we create, we end up writing to pass our stories forward. Fistfight is a highly personalized read in terms of details and Spokane culture. However, it is also universal and accessible in that it leaves room for the reader to connect to well-developed and raw, real characters, which makes the collection an engaging read.
While the stories are riddled with hopelessness (at one point I found myself having to close the book to take a deep breath and recover from a particularly strong scene), the hopelessness is accompanied by a good dose of laughter—the other tool in the survival kil for the Spokane reservation Indians (or the filling for the potholes and cracks in the Indian identity). In “The Approximate Size of My Favorite Tumor,” Jimmy One-Horse tells his wife, Norma, that he has cancer. He goes on to deal with this upsetting news by comparing his tumor to a baseball and asks Norma to call him Babe Ruth. Norma retaliates: she slaps him, leaves the house, and comes back a few months later because, she says, Indians are at least good at helping people die.
In “Imagining the Reservation,” Alexie writes, “Survival = Anger x Imagination. Imagination is the only weapon on the reservation.” This particular story has no protagonist other than the Indians, and no antagonist but the world. The author weaves a powerful tapestry of images: Crazy Horse inventing the atom bomb in 1876; shards of glass with the persona’s reflection cast in them; an Indian freezing to death in a freezer which wasn’t turned on—and so forth. The images capture the importance of imagination on the reservation which falls in with laughter and alcoholism as a coping device. These coping devices are internal—imagination is a weapon meant for fighting hopelessness at the internal level rather than the external. Humor and drinking fall into the same pool. In a way, Fistfight is a collection of stories about reservation survival methods: you laugh, you drink, and when the world shits on you, you pretend to shit right back on it.