Sherman Alexie’s initial foray into fiction (except for a few stories sprinkled among his poems), The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven appeared before his twenty-seventh birthday and was awarded a citation from the PEN/Hemingway Award committee for best first book of fiction in 1993. Praising his “live and unremitting lyric energy,” one reviewer suggested that three of the twenty-two stories in the book “could stand in any collection of excellence.”
Alexie grew up in Wellpinit, Washington, on the Spokane Indian Reservation; he is Spokane-Coeur d’Alene. Critics have noted that the pain and anger of the stories is balanced by his keen sense of humor and satiric wit. Alexie’s readers will notice certain recurring characters, including Victor Joseph, who often appears as the narrator, Lester FallsApart, the pompous tribal police chief, David WalsAlong, Junior Polatkin, and Thomas Builds-the-Fire, the storyteller to whom no one listens. These characters also appear in Alexie’s first novel, Reservation Blues (1995), so the effect is of a community; in this respect, Alexie’s writings are similar to the fiction of William Faulkner. One reviewer has suggested that The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven is almost a novel, despite the fact that Alexie rarely relies on plot development in the stories and does not flesh out his characters. It might more aptly be said that the stories come close to poetry, just as Alexie’s poems verge on fiction. The stories range in length from less than three to about twenty pages, and some of the best, like “The First Annual All-Indian Horseshoe Pitch and Barbecue,” leap from moment to moment, from one-liner to quickly narrated episode, much like a poem.
That story begins, “Someone forgot the charcoal; blame the BIA.” The next sentence concerns Victor playing the piano just before the barbecue: “after the beautiful dissonance and implied survival, the Spokane Indians wept, stunned by this strange and familiar music.” Survival is a repeated theme in Alexie’s work. The story then jumps to a series of four short paragraphs, each beginning “There is something beautiful about.” Then we are told that Simon won at horseshoes, and he “won the coyote contest when he told us that basketball should be our new religion.” A paragraph near the end is composed of a series of questions, each beginning “Can you hear the dreams.” The last paragraph features a child born of a white mother and an Indian father, with the mother proclaiming: “Both sides of this baby are beautiful.”
Beneath the anger, pain, and satiric edge of his stories, often haunted by the mythic figure of Crazy Horse and tinged with fantasy, Alexie offers hope for survival and reconciliation.