Early on in Sherman Alexie’s novel, Junior refers to his best friend as the “toughest kid on the rez.” Rowdy is “long and lean and strong like a snake.” Rowdy’s robust physical presence connects to his star performances in competitions and the world of sports. Junior explains how Rowdy hits multiple home runs in baseball games and will likely be on the varsity team as a freshman. When it comes to football, Rowdy excels. In eighth grade, Rowdy was the kicker, the middle linebacker, and the star quarterback. On the basketball court, Rowdy is a remarkable player. In one game, he scored forty points.
Rowdy’s physical prowess contrasts with Junior’s lackluster sports performances. Junior doesn’t score many points when he plays basketball, he strikes out during baseball, and he wasn’t even on the football team (he was the water boy). Junior lacks the physical abilities of his best friend, which is significant, because their divergent talents shape their relationship. Since Junior is better at activities that are less physically demanding, like drawing and reading, sometimes Rowdy ends up playing the role of his protector.
Of course, sometimes Rowdy abuses Junior. Rowdy’s violent nature suggests that his profound athletic performances aren’t separate from his abusive home life. Perhaps one reason why Rowdy is so tough is that he has to be if he wants to survive the “hard punches” of his alcoholic father.