Set on the Spokane Indian Reservation in eastern Washington State, The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven is a collection of loosely related stories featuring a recurring cast of characters. In these twenty-two stories, the young male protagonists, usually in their late teens or their twenties, struggle with poverty, alcoholism, and the despair of everyday life on and off the reservation. They also try to come to grips with what it means to be Indian (as the characters exclusively refer to themselves) in the late twentieth century.
Though these stories have no chronological order, vary wildly in style, and use different narrators, the author manages, with thin plots, sketchy characterization, and “artless” language, to build stories of great cumulative power and understanding. The reader is well advised to read the book through to experience the full effect.
The first story in the collection, “Every Little Hurricane,” describes a New Year’s Eve party as seen through the eyes of nine-year-old Victor. Images of bad weather metaphorically represent the emotional storms of the party, where Victor’s drunken uncles, Adolph and Arnold, fight viciously for no apparent reason. “He could see his uncles slugging each other with such force that they had to be in love. Strangers would never want to hurt each other that badly.” A flashback then recounts a Christmas of four years before, when there was no money for gifts and Victor had seen his father cry in despair. The narration then moves back to the party, with the emotional storm prompting other memories of pain, poverty, and humiliation among the partygoers. In the final scene, Victor crawls between the unconscious forms of his parents, passed out in their bed. He feels the power of love and the family there, and the power of survival.
Another story that explores Victor’s family relationships is “Because My Father Always Said He Was the Only Indian Who Saw Jimi Hendrix Play The Star Spangled Banner’ at Woodstock.” A series of family memories in this plotless sketch describe Victor’s relationship with his father, his father and mother’s unusual love story, and Victor’s father’s relationship with alcohol. All of this is set against the ever-present background of the Native American’s relationship with modern America.
In “This Is What It Means to Say Phoenix, Arizona,” Victor and his lifelong but estranged friend Thomas Builds-the-Fire travel to Phoenix to collect the personal effects of Victor’s father, who has died of a heart attack. In the course of the journey, some episodes in the earlier life of Victor and Thomas are recounted, and their friendship is reborn. Thomas, a visionary storyteller and link to traditional Indian ways, suggests that they throw Victor’s father’s ashes in the Spokane River so that he can “rise like a salmon . . . and find his way home.” In the story, therefore, three things are, like the phoenix, reborn from the ashes: the relationship of Victor and Thomas, some small part of Indian tradition, and Victor’s father’s Indian spirit.
Many of the themes and symbols of the book are brought together and underscored in the final story of the collection, “Witnesses, Secret and Not.” Thirteen-year-old Victor accompanies his father on a trip to the Spokane Police Department to answer questions about a man who had disappeared ten years earlier. In the car, they discuss those who have died and those who have disappeared into the cities, but a dangerous near-accident on the ice goes unremarked. They see a drunken Indian man that they know, give him a couple of dollars, and leave him “to make his own decisions.” They are treated cordially but with little respect by the police, who have called the father in to the police station for little reason, requiring a long journey on dangerous, icy roads. Returning home, they join their strong and apparently happy family, the redeeming quality of their lives. The story is simple, even superficial, but in the course of it, the issues of white-Indian relationships, alcoholism and personal responsibility, death and disappearances, and the warm bond of the family are subtly yet effectively explored.
Other stories deal with the narrator’s relationship with a white woman (“The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven”), the trials of schooling (“Indian Education”), illness and death (“The Approximate Size of My Favorite Tumor”), and alcoholism (“Amusements”). Still others adopt a more mystical tone and experimental style to examine the art of storytelling (“A Good Story,” “The Trial of Thomas Builds-the-Fire”), alternate history (“Distances”), and dreams of the future (“Imagining the Reservation”).