illustrated portrait of American Indian author Sherman Alexie

Sherman Alexie

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Sherman Alexie Short Fiction Analysis

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1152

According to Sherman Alexie in an interview with CINEASTE, the five major influences on his writing are “my father, for his nontraditional Indian stories, my grandmother for her traditional Indian stories, Stephen King, John Steinbeck, and The Brady Bunch.” It is no wonder then that Alexie’s work, in particular the short stories in The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven, has been described by American Indian Quarterly as resembling a “casebook of postmodernist theory” that revels in such things as irony, parody of traditions, and the mingling of popular and native cultures. The result is a body of work that allows Alexie to challenge and subvert the stereotypes of Native Americans seen in the mass media (the warrior, the shaman, the drunk) and explore what it means to be a contemporary Native American.

In commenting on Native American poets and writers, writers such as Leslie Marmon Silko describe how Native American artists often create their strongest work when they write from a position of social responsibility. In Alexie’s case, his work is often designed to effect change by exposing other Indians and whites to the harsh realities of reservation life. In Alexie’s early work—work influenced by his own alcoholism and father’s abandonment (as seen in The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven)—he uses the Spokane Indian community as a backdrop for his characters, who often suffer from poverty, despair, and substance abuse. Yet it is his use of dark humor and irony that enables these characters to survive both their own depressions and self-loathing and the attitude and activities of the often ignorant and apathetic white society. Alexie writes in his short story “Because My Father Always Said He Was the Only Indian Who Saw Jimi Hendrix Play ‘The Star-Spangled Banner’ at Woodstock”:On a reservation, Indian men who abandon their children are treated worse than white fathers who do the same thing. It’s because white men have been doing that forever and Indian men have just learned how. That’s how assimilation works.

With sobriety, Alexie claims that from The Business of Fancydancing in 1992 to Smoke Signals in 1998, his vision of Indian society has brightened and his writing has moved from focusing on the effects to the causes of substance abuse and other self-destructive behaviors. In CINEASTE, Alexie describes his growth as a writer in this way:As I’ve been in recovery over the years and stayed sober, you’ll see the work gradually freeing itself of alcoholism and going much deeper, exploring the emotional, sociological, and psychological reasons for any kind of addictions or dysfunctions within the [Indian] community. It’s more of a whole journey, you get there and you get back.

The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven

Alexie’s first collection of (only) short stories, The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven, received much critical acclaim. Many of the Native American characters that he introduced in his earlier poetry—like the storyteller Thomas Builds-The-Fire and his friend Victor Joseph—appear here as vehicles through which Alexie illustrates how Indians survive both the hardships they face on reservations and the gulfs between similar and dissimilar cultures, time periods, and men and women.

In a number of the twenty-two often autobiographical stories in this collection, Alexie infuses irony into tales that illustrate the destructive effects ofalcohol on both children and adults on reservations. For example, in “The Only Traffic Signal on the Reservation Doesn’t Flash Red Any More” he weaves the tradition of storytelling with the contemporary issue of how cultures create their own heroes. In this story, the narrator and his friend Adrian, both recovering alcoholics, are sitting on a porch playing Russian roulette with a BB gun. They stop and watch a local high school basketball player walk by with his friends. As the narrator talks, the reader learns that contemporary heroes on the reservation are often basketball players, and stories about their abilities are retold year after year. Yet, these heroes, including the narrator himself, often succumb to alcoholism and drop off the team. From the narrator’s reminisces, it becomes clear that, while all people need heroes in their lives, creating heroes on a reservation can be problematic.

In “A Drug Called Tradition,” the narrator tells the story of Thomas Builds-The-Fire and the “second-largest party in reservation history” for which he pays with money he receives from a large utility company land lease. While the narrator claims that “we can all hear our ancestors laughing in the trees” when Indians actually profit in this way, who the ancestors are truly laughing at is unclear. Are they laughing at the white people for spending a lot of money to put ten telephone poles across some land or the Indians for spending that money on large quantities of alcohol? Later in the story, Victor, Junior, and Thomas go off and experience a night of drug-induced hallucinations about the faraway past, the present, and future. In the present, the boys return to a time before they ever had their first drink of alcohol. From this story, the reader learns that it is best for people to stay in the present and keep persevering and not become stuck in the past or an imagined future.

Several of the stories in The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven that were eventually adapted for the film Smoke Signals explore both the connections and fissures between people of different genders and similar or dissimilar cultures. In “Every Little Hurricane,” the reader is introduced to nine-year-old Victor, who is awakened from his frequent nightmares by one of the many family fights, this one occurring between his uncles during a New Year’s Eve party. Memories of other seasonal alcohol and poverty-induced “hurricanes” ensue, such as that of the Christmas his father could not afford any gifts. At the end of the story, as all the relatives and neighbors pick themselves up and go home, Victor lies down between his father and mother, hoping that the alcohol in their bodies will seep into his and help him sleep. This story is about how Indians continue to be “eternal survivors” of many types of storms.

In “Because My Father Always Said He Was the Only Indian Who Saw Jimi Hendrix Play ‘The Star-Spangled Banner’ at Woodstock,” the narrator details the love-hate relationship between his mother and his father (who would later leave the family), while using a popular music icon to illustrate how Native Americans and whites share at least one common culture. The narrator of this story, the abandoned Victor, later teams up with former childhood friend and storyteller Thomas in “This Is What It Means to Say Phoenix, Arizona,” to collect Victor’s father’s ashes in Phoenix. In their ensuing journey, the characters grow spiritually and emotionally, while exploring what it means today to be a Native American.

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