single car driving across the desert

This Is What It Means to Say Phoenix, Arizona

by Sherman Alexie

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Last Updated on June 16, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 532

In his short story “This Is What It Means to Say Phoenix, Arizona,” published in the 1993 collection The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven, Sherman Alexie uses irony to explore the conditions and culture of modern Indigenous American life. His work is an exploration of the way in which modern Indigenous individuals try to connect to their past and survive in a world that has deprived them of their land and many of their traditions.

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For example, at the beginning of the story, Alexie poses the question of whether anyone on a reservation has money—save the people who sell cigarettes and fireworks. His protagonist, Victor, is broke, and Alexie writes about the poverty of the residents of Washington state’s Spokane Indian Reservation in a darkly ironic way; it is ironic that Indigenous people are selling fireworks to white people in order to make money. It is also ironic that the Tribal Council, the elders who are in charge on the reservation, can only afford to give Victor a hundred dollars to pay for his trip to claim his father’s body in Phoenix, Arizona. They are supposed to provide for their tribe, but they can offer little help.

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Alexie uses a number of symbols in his story. When Victor and his friend Thomas Builds-the-Fire are going to a fireworks display as boys, Thomas comments that they shouldn’t be celebrating the Fourth of July because the American Revolution wasn't fought for the independence of Indigenous people. The fireworks display is also very small—another symbol of the way in which American independence isn’t meant for them.

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Latest answer posted November 17, 2010, 12:19 am (UTC)

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Dreams are also a major theme of the story, and Alexie uses different symbols to represent them. When Thomas was young, he leapt off of the schoolhouse roof and “flew” for a short time before crashing and breaking his arm in two places. This incident is symbolic of the way in which Thomas tries to achieve something greater—something that will bear him aloft—but is ultimately only injured by his attempts. Nevertheless, he continues to embrace the significance of dreams and visions, acting as the reservation’s storyteller. By telling Victor stories throughout their journey to Phoenix and back, Thomas offers Victor a form of healing and the ability to accept both the good and the bad aspects of his absentee father.

At the end of the story, Thomas decides to put some of the ashes of Victor’s father’s body in Spokane Falls, where Thomas once traveled after having a vision. At the falls, he encountered Victor’s father, who took him to Denny’s and drove him home. Thomas concluded from this experience that his vision was attempting to show him the importance of caring for one another. He tells Victor that, in being placed into the waterfall, Victor’s father will rise again. This is a symbol of spiritual rebirth and regeneration, as the dead man’s ashes will rise in the falls, like a salmon swimming upriver. The story ends with the hopeful image of the sun rising, and it is implied that Victor, too, will rise again from the ashes of his grief and suffering.

Style and Technique

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Last Updated on May 19, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 373

The seventh story within Alexie’s short-story collection The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven (1993), “This Is What It Means to Say Phoenix, Arizona,” continues the story of Victor, an alienated young Indigenous man. Dialogue is used extensively. Alexie wrote the screenplay for the film Smoke Signals (1999) based on this short story.

Told in the third person, mainly through the consciousness of Victor, the tone is bleak, even cynical at times, with small details carrying great weight. Though this story is more psychological than political or social, references to the BIA, Thomas Builds-the-Fire’s HUD (US Department of Housing and Urban Development) house, poverty, alcohol, and the reservation underscore the tragic history of the Native Americans’ interactions with the US government and their psychological consequences.

In the first two sentences of the story the reader learns that Victor has just lost his job, that his father has died of a heart attack, and that soon Victor will be in great pain. However, this tone is offset by the character of Thomas Builds-the-Fire, who brings into the story both hope and comic relief. Although the reservation is presented as a place where history has produced poverty, alcoholism, and disillusionment, Thomas, himself a product of the reservation, seems to have transcended this. Though he is ignored, his Indigenous name links him with everything Indigenous and traditional. Like Norma Many Horses, who is described as a “warrior,” Thomas is, in his own way, “powerful.” Therefore, his connection with Victor produces the seeds for Victor’s transformation. In the same way that Thomas Builds-the-Fire’s name is meaningful, Victor’s name indicates that he will be victorious.

By using a central story told within a number of smaller stories, Alexie weaves a tapestry from the threads of the past, which allows Victor, through his own memories and his connection with Thomas, to rise above his circumstances. Thomas envisions Victor’s father rising like a salmon when he throws his ashes over the water of Spokane Falls. However, Alexie implies that it is Victor who will rise from the ashes, a young man who will be reborn, like the phoenix, from the flames of his own suffering and pain—flames kindled by his journey with Thomas Builds-the-Fire.

Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 19, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 568

The meaning of Sherman Alexie’s “This Is What It Means to Say Phoenix, Arizona” is amplified by the story’s symbolism. The story’s title, among other elements in this story, is significant. Phoenix is not only a city in Arizona but also the name of a bird in Egyptian mythology that rises from its own ashes and is reborn, making it a symbol of immortality and regeneration. Victor and Thomas Builds-the-Fire travel to Phoenix and, in the hot Arizona summer, step inside Victor’s father’s trailer to reclaim, literally and figuratively, that which has been lost. It is not only Victor’s father’s ashes, but also the ashes of Victor’s own life, which Victor seems ready to grasp by this story’s end. Thomas Builds-the-Fire is the character and agent, as his name literally indicates, who has built the fire under Victor.

Fire is a symbol of the passions and of the heart. Though Thomas is an outsider, even on the reservation, his “fire” is the transforming agent for Victor, for Thomas is a man filled with magic, dreams, and visions. When he tells Victor the story of his journey to Spokane Falls to find Victor’s father, Victor recognizes the tie between his father and Thomas and that Thomas is a part of Victor’s own story. When Victor abandoned Thomas, he abandoned a part of himself; this is part of what Victor reclaims.

This story embodies a journey motif that literally takes place via the plane ride to Phoenix, the stop at Victor’s father’s trailer, and the road trip back to the reservation. On the plane they meet Cathy, the gymnast, whose physical flexibility stands in contrast to Victor’s mental inflexibility. With Cathy, an athlete involved with the 1980 Olympic games—which the US government boycotted—and the only white character in the story, Alexie implies that the US government is self-serving, whether it is dealing with athletes or Indigenous people.

Once in Phoenix, Victor goes into his father’s trailer because “there might be something valuable in there.” He is not talking about something that will be valuable in the material sense, but sentimental things—letters or photographs. After entering his father’s home, Victor is then able see his father in a more human light.

On the way home, Victor drives his father’s pickup for sixteen hours. When Thomas takes over at the wheel, halfway through the Nevada desert, he accidentally runs over a jackrabbit. Victor and Thomas both agree that the jackrabbit died by “suicide,” which alludes to both Victor and his father, men who both had the ability to escape the symbolic “desert” of their own lives but refused. With this realization, Victor takes back the wheel and drives home, for now he, unlike the jackrabbit and his father, is more consciously in charge of his own path.

The real journey takes place inside Victor, the protagonist and initiate, who emerges by story’s end not as an obviously changed man but as one who now has the capacity for change. During the course of this journey, Victor recalls his childhood innocence and his pain, remembers what is bad and good about his father, acknowledges that his actions have hurt Thomas, and gives Thomas half of his father’s ashes. Significantly, Thomas and Victor return to the reservation “as the sun [son] was rising.”

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