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This Is What It Means to Say Phoenix, Arizona

by Sherman Alexie
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In "This Is What It Means to Say Phoenix, Arizona," why is it that Victor and Thomas cannot be friends when they return to the reservation?

In "This Is What It Means to Say Phoenix, Arizona," Victor and Thomas cannot be friends when they return to the reservation because Thomas is ostracized in their community and Victor does not wish to suffer rejection by befriending him. 

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The friendship between Victor and Thomas had suffered a heavy blow years before when Thomas had prophecied that Victor’s father would leave forever. Not only did Victor violently attack Thomas at that time, but later, he also could not forgive him for being right. The trip they take together after Victor’s father dies is a temporary but necessary reconciliation. Thomas is demonstrating that he has forgiven Victor for attacking him, while Victor is acknowledging that Thomas is a true prophet. Their mutually experienced journey is like a mythical quest, which occurs in time and space that are outside of the normal time–space. After they return to the reservation, however, they also return to normality.

Sherman Alexie provides considerable ambiguity in regard to their future relationship, however. In the immediate present, Victor believes that he has come back home the same person as he was before he left, which is a form of self-delusion. He thinks that his friends will regard him as being the same, including in his attitudes against Thomas. Victor knows that he cannot “really be friends with Thomas.” But Victor has established that he believes in the truth of one of Thomas’s prophecies, and therefore, he leaves himself open to continuing to believe in him at a later date. His certainty that Thomas will continue to be a “crazy storyteller” may lead him to accept Thomas’s invitation to “stop and listen” to him telling stories at a later date.

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Another reason Victor and Thomas cannot be friends is that they harbor differing perspectives on life.

While Victor considers himself a modern Indian, Thomas cherishes the storytelling traditions of his people. Thomas also has a deep faith in prophetic visions, something Victor does not share. Here, it is very likely that Thomas's previous prophecy about Victor's father constitutes the main reason for the continuing rift between the two.

On the surface, there is a taboo surrounding Thomas's prophetic visions. They are considered backward and maybe even superstitious in nature. On a deeper level, though, Thomas's visions contain some uncomfortable truths. In fact, it is Thomas's habit of analysis and seeming obsession with truth that makes Victor uncomfortable. To Victor, some truths are too painful to be acknowledged. This is why he is upset when Thomas prophesies his father's departure.

In the story, there is a flashback to the time when both Thomas and Victor were still boys. In this flashback, it is the Fourth of July. Thomas questions why Indians celebrate the holiday. He makes the rueful comment that "it ain't like it was our independence everybody was fighting for." In reply, Victor teases that Thomas thinks about "things too much."

Victor and Thomas cannot be friends because of their divergent perspectives about what it means to be Indian in a modern context.

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Thomas closed his eyes and this story came to him: "We are all given one thing by which our lives are measured, one determination. Mine are the stories which can change or not change the world. It doesn't matter which as long as I continue to tell the stories.

The text makes it fairly clear why they cannot be friends, though one always feels there must be some additional reason. Thomas says to Victor that he understands things between them will continue as the were before, that Victor's friends would cause him too much grief if Victor and Thomas were seen to be friends. So the surface reason is that since Thomas is ostracized in the community because of his stories, which are actually prophesies, Victor will not opt to suffer the same ostracism by befriending him.

Victor knew that Thomas would remain the crazy storyteller who talked to dogs and cars, who listened to the wind and pine trees. Victor knew that he couldn't really be friends with Thomas, ....

"I know how it is," Thomas said. "I know you ain't going to treat me any better than you did before. I know your friends would give you too much [grief] about it."

A deeper reason has to do with why Thomas's stories are all old meaningless repeats of stories. When they were young, Thomas told the story to Victor of Victor's father leaving home and never coming back. When it came true, Victor's eventual reaction was to beat Thomas up.

It was on that night that Thomas's stories dried up leaving him with only old dead stories. One reason that Victor and Thomas can't be friends after returning is that the breach the truth caused between then--caused by Victor's reaction--was too great to overcome. Nonetheless, Victor and Thomas are reconciled by the promise exchanged as they part because when Thomas goes in his house and closes his eyes, he has a new story given to him and released in his mind.

"[When] I'm telling a story somewhere, why don't you stop and listen?"

Thomas went into his house, closed the door behind him, and heard a new story come to him in the silence afterwards.

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