The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven is Sherman Alexie’s first full-length work of fiction. His previous books, all published between 1991 and 1993, consist of two volumes of poetry and two books of poems mixed with short prose pieces. His conversational style and major themes are common to all of his work, and even some of the characters in The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven are introduced in earlier books.
Alexie’s concern with the issues of contemporary Native Americans—their search for identity in modern America and their often ambivalent feelings about their disappearing traditional culture—places him in the mainstream of Native American fiction at the close of the twentieth century. Though this genre has emerged as a significant literary force only since the 1960’s, Indian writers are working with and against a heritage of thousands of years of oral literature. The structure of this traditional literature was quite different from the European tradition into which most modern writers try to fit. The oral Indian tale was generally authorless, passed down through generations from storyteller to storyteller, altered and personalized, but never claimed. The storytellers “cared for” the stories, but never owned them. The stories therefore tended to be mythical and timeless, descriptive of the culture as a whole, as opposed to character studies of individual people. Alexie refers often to this tradition of storytelling, and his work, too, seems to consist of timeless stories of rather generic characters who confront problems, feel pain, and experience joys common to many people, yet are in many ways unique to the situation of Native American culture.
Out of this tradition, then, Sherman Alexie has risen to present his view of life on the modern reservation. His stories show the young Native American man, in conflict with himself and the world in which he finds himself, getting by on love and trust and treading the narrow line between the past and the future.