Sherman Alexie grew up on an Indian Reservation in Washington State. His story “This Is What It Means to Say Phoenix, Arizona” comes from his experiences on the reservations. Unfortunately, many of the reservations are riddled with alcoholism, unemployment, truancy, and many other social problems.
The story’s two characters have known each other all of their lives and were at one time good friends. The protagonist Victor Joseph maintains all the foibles of someone who has not found himself nor his personal identity. On the other hand, Thomas Builds-a-Fire has had to face many hardships and from it has grown to be a man worth knowing. He is kind, friendly, considerate, and willing to forgive.
The story centers on the death of Victor’s father. Traveling to Phoenix from Washington to pick up his father’s things presents a problem for Victor. He has no money and has just lost his job. Thomas offers to go with him and pay the way. Victor has no choice but to accept.
The airplane ride initially is very uncomfortable for Victor. He believes that Thomas is making a fool of himself talking to the gymnast. The girl begins to talk to Thomas; and she honestly seems to enjoy talking to him. Thomas has matured and his social skills surpass those of Victor. Rather than accept the fact that not everyone has ulterior motives, Victor tells Thomas that everyone talks to other people on planes.
When the pair arrive at the father’s trailer, it reeks since the father was not found for several days after his death. After the search, Victor finds a photo album, stereo, and his father’s truck. Initially, Victor is negative; however, Thomas points out the positive side to his legacy. While they are at the trailer, Thomas relates his memory of Victor’s father. The father had helped Thomas once when he was thirteen. The father had picked Thomas up, bought him dinner, and drove him home to the reservation.
Although Victor had never had good feelings about his dad, he looks back in his memories and finds more good ones than bad. This made him smile. Again, Thomas has helped Victor to see a more positive side to events. Thomas serves as a vehicle, not only in his spoken stories, but through his presence, to bridge the gap of memory and help Victor’s attitude toward life.
The ride home held its own adventures. The trip begins with the father’s death, and then the jack rabbit’s death occurs. Thomas begins to drive and almost immediately the rabbit runs under the truck. The desert is empty, dead, and lifeless. Thomas attributes the death to suicide because of the rabbit’s loneliness. The death of the father by himself in a trailer to be found by the smell is also an ugly lonely death.
One of the last events in the story is the father’s ashes taken to the place where Victor’s father had helped Thomas. From this event, Victor and Thomas come full circle. Their lives have been forever meshed because of their former friendship and this meaningful journey.
"Just one time when I'm telling a story somewhere, why don't you stop and listen?" Thomas asked.
So Victor drove his father's pickup toward home while Thomas went into his house, closed the door behind him, and heard a new story come to him in the silence afterwards
This journey enables Victor to mature and grow as a man. Hopefully, Victor’s attitude will change toward his circumstances and with renewed loyalty, he can be a better friend to Thomas
Airplane - There are several important concepts here. First of all, Victor is embarrassed by Thomas and his comfort in speaking to strangers. It also points out the connection between the Native Americans and the gymnist - - the government has "screwed" them both.
The ride through Nevada: "The only thing alive in this state and we just killed it." They couldn't accept it and had to admit that it must have been suicide.
Trailer - "Your dad was my vision. Take care of each other." This is the main theme of the story.