The seventh story within Alexie’s short-story collection The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven (1993), “This is What it Means to Say Phoenix, Arizona” continues the story of Victor, an alienated young Indian man. Dialogue is used extensively. Alexie wrote the screenplay for the film Smoke Signals (1999) based on this short story.
Told in the third person, mainly through the consciousness of Victor, the tone is bleak, even cynical at times, with small details carrying great weight. Though this story is more psychological than political or social, references to the BIA, Thomas Builds-the-Fire’s HUD (U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development) house, poverty, alcohol, and the reservation underscore the tragic history of the Native Americans’ interactions with the U.S. government and their psychological consequences.
In the first two sentences of the story the reader learns that Victor has just lost his job, that his father has died of a heart attack, and that soon Victor will be in great pain. However, this tone is offset by the character of Thomas Builds-the-Fire, who brings into the story both hope and comic relief. Although the reservation is presented as a place where history has produced poverty, alcoholism, and disillusionment, Thomas, himself a product of the reservation, seems to have transcended this. Though he is ignored, his Indian name links him with everything Indian and traditional. Like Norma Many Horses, who is described as a “warrior,” Thomas is, in his own way, “powerful.” Therefore, his connection with Victor produces the seeds for Victor’s transformation. In the same way that Thomas Builds-the-Fire’s name is meaningful, Victor’s name indicates that he will be victorious.
By using a central story told within a number of smaller stories, Alexie weaves a tapestry from the threads of the past, which allows Victor, through his own memories and his connection with Thomas, to rise above his circumstances. Thomas envisions Victor’s father rising like a salmon when he throws his ashes over the water of Spokane Falls. However, Alexie implies that it is Victor who will rise from the ashes, a young man who will be reborn, like the phoenix, from the flames of his own suffering and pain—flames kindled by his journey with Thomas Builds-the-Fire.