Reservation Blues Summary

Victor, Junior Polatkin, and Thomas-Builds-the-Fire decide to form a band. One day, Robert Johnson, a guitarist from Mississippi, comes to the reservation and gives Victor his guitar. Johnson was said to have sold his sold to the Devil for his magic guitar. This is in some ways a retelling of the Faust myth.

  • Victor and the band name themselves the Coyote Springs. On the road, they pick up two vocalists, Chess and Checkers, and two groupies, Betty and Veronica, white women named after characters from the Archie comics.
  • Coyote Springs is invited to a kind of battle of the bands in Seattle. After they win, a local DJ interviews Thomas-Builds-the-Fire on the radio. This gets the attention of Big Mom, a godlike figure who pushes them to learn new chords and perfect their craft.
  • Coyote Springs goes to New York to meet with the executives at Calvary Records. At a critical moment, Victor chokes, and the band loses their shot at a record deal. They return to the reservation in shame, and Junior kills himself. The novel ends with Thomas, Chess, and Checkers singing a song Big Mom taught them.


(Society and Self, Critical Representations in Literature)

Sherman Alexie’s first novel, Reservation Blues, was published before his thirtieth birthday and after the striking success of The Business of Fancydancing (1992), a collection of poems and stories published by a small press when he was twenty-six. By the time his novel was being reviewed, nearly eight thousand copies of The Business of Fancydancing were in print, along with two additional collections of poetry, Old Shirts and New Skins and First Indian on the Moon, and a heralded book of short stories, The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven, all published in 1993.

In his novel Alexie reasserts an equation that he formed in “Imagining the Reservation,” from The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven: “Survival = Anger ’ Imagination. Imagination is the only weapon on the reservation.” Reservation Blues is arguably the most imaginative of his works to date, blending, among other things, the Faust myth with life on the “rez” and the dream of making it big in the music world. Alexie has performed in his own blues band.

The novel is haunted by the bad memories (the essence of the blues) and by several characters’ nightmares, including Junior Polatkin, Victor, and Thomas Builds-the-Fire, all of whom are familiar from other stories and poems by Alexie. The role of the deity in the novel is played by Big Mom, who lives atop a mountain on the reservation...

(The entire section is 460 words.)


(Society and Self, Critical Representations in Literature)

Suggested Readings

Bellante, John, and Carl Bellante. “Sherman Alexie, Literary Rebel.” Bloomsbury Review 14 (May/June, 1994): 14-15, 26.

Busch, Frederick. “Longing for Magic.” The New York Times Book Review, July 16, 1995, 9-10.

Kincaid, James R. “Who Gets to Tell Their Stories?” The New York Times Book Review 97 (May 3, 1992): 1, 24-29.

Price, Reynolds. “One Indian Doesn’t Tell Another.” The New York Times Book Review 98 (October 17, 1993): 15-16.

Silko, Leslie Marmon. “Big Bingo.” Nation 260 (June 12, 1995): 856-858, 860.