The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven

(Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

THE LONE RANGER AND TONTO FISTFIGHT IN HEAVEN is Sherman Alexie’s first full-length work of fiction. Last year, Hanging Loose Press published THE BUSINESS OF FANCYDANCING (see MAGILL’S LITERARY ANNUAL, 1993), a collection of poems, stories, and vignettes praised for its myth-making power to portray the inner lives and unspoken conflicts of Native Americans caught with “one foot in the reservation and the other in the outside world.” In THE LONE RANGER AND TONTO FISTFIGHT IN HEAVEN, Alexie continues to write about a native culture whose traditions, such as pow-wows and oral storytelling, have been replaced by strip joints and Cable TV. Alexie’s characters are most often seen sitting on the porch steps of HUD houses. Not much else happens in this collection. There is a paralytic sense of stasis that strips these stories of dramatic action or conventional, conflict-centered plot.

What matters most in a Sherman Alexie story is what has already happened: not yesterday, but as long ago as one hundred years. Time is stretched elastic in Alexie’s trickster hands. He dramatizes the post-trickle-down plight of the present-day Native American in the framework of a past that is still very much alive, though not well. Alexie’s characters are trapped by a tradition whose “whole lives have to do with survival.” Yet for many of Alexie’s characters, a central question still exists. How do we live? Or, as the narrator of “Witnesses, Secret and Not,” puts it: “I had to find out what it meant to be Indian, and there ain’t no self-help manuals for that.”

The best stories in THE LONE RANGER AND TONTO FISTFIGHT IN HEAVEN shed light on the question of what it means not only to survive, but to live. This much is clear: there are no easy answers.


Alexie, Sherman. Interview by Dennis West and Joan M. West. Cineaste 23 (1998): 28-32. Alexie responds to questions about the similarities and differences between his novel The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven and his movie Smoke Signals. His comments on the autobiographical elements of both are particularly interesting.

Egan, Timothy. “An Indian Without Reservations.” New York Times Magazine, January 18, 1998, 16-19. Profiles Sherman Alexie and his Indian background. Covers Alexie’s comedic look into the hardships of being a Native American; his vocal attacks on author Barbara Kingsolver; the making of film versions of his books; and the life on the reservation where he was raised.

Low, Denise. Review of The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven, by Sherman Alexie. American Indian Quarterly 20 (Winter, 1996): 123-125. Low discusses the postmodern characteristics of Alexie’s novel, focusing on his use of humor and irony. She praises the book for its deft mingling of popular and Native American cultures.

Price, Reynolds. “One Indian Doesn’t Tell Another.” The New York Times Book Review, October 17, 1993, 15-16. Price, a short-story writer himself, finds moments of monotony and obsessive gloom in some of Alexie’s stories. He also expresses disappointment at the spare plots and lack of detail, which others might consider Alexie’s mythic voice. Finally, though, he praises the “lyric energy” and “exhilarating vitality” of these stories and looks forward to a more mature, broader vision from the writer.

Schneider, Brian. “The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven.” Review of Contemporary Fiction 13 (Fall, 1993): 237-238. This review focuses on Alexie’s use of myths and mythmaking to describe and support the Native American culture. Schneider especially praises Alexie’s ability to juxtapose humor and pathos with brutally honest prose.

Velie, Alan R. “World Literature in Review: Other European andf American Languages.” World Literature Today 68 (Spring, 1994): 407. Favorable review of The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven. Velie compares Alexie’s novel to Louise Erdrich’s Love Medicine, pointing out the similarities in characterization and the use of humor. Concludes that “Alexie has turned the lives and dreams of the people of his reservation into superb literature.”