The meaning of Sherman Alexie’s “This Is What It Means to Say Phoenix, Arizona” is amplified by the story’s symbolism. The story’s title, among other elements in this story, is significant. Phoenix is not only a city in Arizona but also the name of a bird in Egyptian mythology that rises from its own ashes and is reborn, making it a symbol of immortality and regeneration. Victor and Thomas Builds-the-Fire travel to Phoenix and, in the hot Arizona summer, step inside Victor’s father’s trailer to reclaim, literally and figuratively, that which has been lost. It is not only Victor’s father’s ashes, but also the ashes of Victor’s own life, which Victor seems ready to grasp by this story’s end. Thomas Builds-the-Fire is the character and agent, as his name literally indicates, who has built the fire under Victor.
Fire is a symbol of the passions and of the heart. Though Thomas is an outsider, even on the reservation, his “fire” is the transforming agent for Victor, for Thomas is a man filled with magic, dreams, and visions. When he tells Victor the story of his journey to Spokane Falls to find Victor’s father, Victor recognizes the tie between his father and Thomas and that Thomas is a part of Victor’s own story. When Victor abandoned Thomas, he abandoned a part of himself; this is part of what Victor reclaims.
This story embodies a journey motif that literally takes place via the plane ride to Phoenix, the stop at Victor’s father’s trailer, and the road trip back to the reservation. On the plane they meet Cathy, the gymnast, whose physical flexibility stands in contrast to Victor’s mental inflexibility. With Cathy, an athlete involved with the 1980 Olympic games—which the U.S. government boycotted—and the only “white” character in the story, Alexie implies that the U.S. government is self-serving, whether it is dealing with athletes or Indians.
Once in Phoenix, Victor goes into his father’s trailer because “there might be something valuable in there.” He is not talking about something that will be valuable in the material sense but sentimental things—letters or photographs. After entering his father’s “house,” Victor is then able see his father in a more human light.
On the way home, Victor drives his father’s pickup for sixteen hours. When Thomas takes over at the wheel, halfway through the Nevada desert, he accidentally runs over a jackrabbit. Victor and Thomas both agree that the jackrabbit committed “suicide,” which alludes to both Victor and his father, men who both had the ability to escape the symbolic “desert” of their own lives but refused. With this realization, Victor takes back the wheel and drives home, for now, he, unlike the jackrabbit and his father, is more consciously in charge of his own path.
The real journey takes place inside Victor, the protagonist and initiate, who emerges by story’s end not as an obviously changed man but as one who now has the capacity for change. During the course of this journey, Victor recalls his childhood innocence and his pain, remembers what is bad and good about his father, acknowledges that his actions have hurt Thomas, and gives Thomas half of his father’s ashes. Significantly, Thomas and Victor return to the reservation “as the sun [son] was rising.”