Summary (Magill's Survey of American Literature, Revised Edition)
“This Is What It Means to Say Phoenix, Arizona,” which several years after it was written provided most of the plot underpinnings of Alexie’s first movie, Smoke Signals, presages some of the later concerns of Alexie’s novel Reservation Blues (1995), in which Victor and Thomas and several other “skins” create an all-Indian blues band known as Coyote Springs, and they go on the road. This story, however, is neatly structured around news of Victor’s father’s death in Arizona and the task of retrieving his ashes, old pickup truck, and modest savings and returning north.
Thomas is perhaps Alexie’s most compelling character in terms of being deeply esconced within his tribal traditions yet still willing and able to critique those traditions and articulate various ironies. As Thomas greets Victor at the tribal trading post and expresses condolences for his loss, Victor asks how Thomas learned of Victor’s father’s passing. Thomas, the tribal storyteller, says: “I heard it on the wind. I heard it from the birds. I felt it in the sunlight. Also, your mother was just in here crying.” Thomas continues throughout the story as both an avatar of traditional practice and an ironic commentator on it.
Although Victor had a problematic relationship with his father, as well as with Thomas, part of their trip to Arizona involves Thomas recounting experiences with Victor’s father. This creates a sort of modern...
(The entire section is 445 words.)
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Summary (Masterplots II: Short Story Series, Revised Edition)
“This Is What It Means to Say Phoenix, Arizona,” a story about reclamation, focuses on the relationship between Victor and Thomas Builds-the-Fire, two young Native American men who have grown up together on the Spokane Indian Reservation. Estranged from each other since they were teenagers, Victor is presented as the modern Indian, a man who has lost faith in himself and in everything Indian and traditional. Thomas Builds-the-Fire is Victor’s antithesis, a dreamer and a traditional storyteller.
The central action of this story is a journey these two men take together to Phoenix, Arizona, where Victor’s father, who left Victor and his mother when Victor was seven, has died of a heart attack in his trailer. They take this journey to claim Victor’s father’s “savings” and ashes. Having just lost his job at the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) and financially unable to make the trip with the one hundred dollars given to him by the Tribal Council, Victor runs into Thomas Builds-the-Fire, who offers to lend him the money he needs on one condition. Thomas says Victor must allow him to go along, since Thomas had promised Victor’s father that he would “watch out” for Victor. Aside from their childhoods, Victor’s father is the link that ties these two men together.
The two men take a plane to Phoenix, and on the plane, they meet and talk to a passenger named Cathy, a gymnast who says she was first alternate on the 1980 U.S. Olympic team. Thomas Builds-the-Fire initiates contact with her, and this impresses Victor....
(The entire section is 633 words.)