single car driving across the desert

This Is What It Means to Say Phoenix, Arizona

by Sherman Alexie
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What is the author Sherman Alexie trying to say about the human condition that is relevant in the story in This is What it Means to Say Phoenix, Arizona?

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Sherman Alexie’s short story, This is What It Means to say Phoenix, Arizona was first published in 1994. It was featured in the Best American Short Stories of 1994. The short story follows Victor, whose father has just died, which occasions his return to Phoenix, though he is very...

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Sherman Alexie’s short story, This is What It Means to say Phoenix, Arizona was first published in 1994. It was featured in the Best American Short Stories of 1994. The short story follows Victor, whose father has just died, which occasions his return to Phoenix, though he is very poor. He meets a childhood friend, now estranged, named Thomas Builds-the-Fire. Thomas is, according to Victor, a “storyteller that no one wanted to listen to.” The story then takes the form of flashbacks to Victor and Tommy’s shared experiences.

Tommy once told Victor a story of two modern-day Native Americans (a thinly veiled story of themselves) who steal a car and drive to the city. Humans are warriors, as described by Thomas. “Warriors” are how Alexie portrays humankind.

Thomas, though a bit of a social outcast, is also clairvoyant. He says: "Your father's heart is weak. He is afraid of his own family. He is afraid of you. Late at night he sits in the dark. Watches the television until there's nothing but that white noise. Sometimes he feels like he wants to buy a motorcycle and ride away. He wants to run and hide. He doesn't want to be found." Thomas predicted Victor’s father’s condition long before his death from a heart attack.

Thomas is ostracized as a student, telling Victor: "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. My father, he died on Okinawa in World War II, died fighting for this country, which had tried to kill him for years. My mother, she died giving birth to me, died while I was still inside her. She pushed me out into the world with her last breath.”

Thomas’ story evokes a tremendous amount of sympathy. He also tells Victor that his father will rise, when his ashes are spread into the Spokane River, which inspires confidence in the reader and in Victor, owing to Thomas’ demonstrated clairvoyance. Through his characters, Alexie portrays humans as resilient, at times tragic (like Victor’s father, who died alone in a trailer), and occasionally clairvoyant.

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