single car driving across the desert

This Is What It Means to Say Phoenix, Arizona

by Sherman Alexie

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How does Victor's character evolve in "This Is What It Means To Say Phoenix, Arizona"?

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In the short story "This Is What It Means to Say Phoenix, Arizona" by Sherman Alexie, the main change that Victor goes through is in a renewal of his relationship with Thomas Builds-the-Fire. He has been ignoring Thomas because people on the reservation think he is strange, but Victor learns that Thomas has real depth and is a true friend.

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In the short story "This Is What It Means to Say Phoenix, Arizona," a Native American named Victor on a reservation in eastern Washington learns that his father has died in a trailer in Phoenix, Arizona. He has to go collect his father's ashes and his pickup truck, but he hasn't got money for the trip. The Tribal Council helps him with a little money, but it's not enough, and then his old friend Thomas Builds-the-Fire offers to help.

Thomas and Victor used to be close, but Thomas has gotten a reputation as an eccentric storyteller so everyone avoids him, including Victor. However, Thomas offers to pay for the trip provided Victor takes him along.

They fly down to Phoenix, retrieve the pickup, a small amount of money, and Victor's father's ashes, and drive back. When they return, as Victor drops him off Thomas says that he knows that Victor will treat him the same as before. It is obvious, though, that their relationship has gone to a deeper, more intimate level.

The most important change that Victor goes through in this story is the reestablishment of his relationship with Thomas. He has been ignoring Thomas, just like everyone else on the reservation, but he realizes that Thomas has depth to his personality of which Victor was unaware, or at least he had forgotten due to pressure from his peers. He learns that Thomas is a true friend, someone that he can rely on, and that Thomas had promised Victor's father that he would look out for him. This renewed relationship is confirmed when Thomas and Victor decide to go to Spokane Falls together to cast Victor's father's ashes into the water.

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Victor changes by reidentifying as a member of his tribe. He reconnects with his father by retrieving an old photo album and his father's ashes and truck. Victor also resurrects remnants of his friendship and Indian culture with Thomas-Builds-the-Fire.

Author Shermie Alexie foreshadows this reclaiming of identity and love in the story's exposition when Victor is informed of his father's death: " . . . there still was a genetic pain, which was soon to be pain [sic] as real and immediate as a broken bone." Because Victor does not have enough money to travel to Arizona, he goes to the Tribal Council and requests financial aid. However, the council is unable to provide Victor the full price of an airplane ticket; they can only give him one hundred dollars. When the suggestion is made that he could drive there, Victor replies that he has no vehicle, but he intends to drive back after picking up his father's truck which is in Phoenix. 

Fortunately for Victor, when he goes to the Trading Post to cash his check, he encounters his former friend, Thomas Builds-the-Fire, who is talking to himself at a magazine rack. Thomas tells Victor that he is sorry about his father's death. "How did you know it?" Victor asks. Thomas tells him, "I heard it on the wind. I heard it from the birds. I felt it in the sunlight. Also, your mother was just in here crying." Although Victor is embarrassed to be seen talking with Thomas because the others in the Trading Post do not, it occurs to Victor that Thomas may help him. "Victor felt a sudden need for tradition."

Thomas Builds-the-Fire does offer to help Victor but insists that Victor take him along. When they arrive at Victor's father's trailer in Phoenix, Arizona, Thomas suggests that Victor find any pictures or letters that can be valuable to his father's memory. Later, Thomas relates a story about his being found by Victor's father when he had a vision that told him to go to Spokane and stand by the Falls to wait for a sign. Thomas was saved from being mugged by Victor's father, who saw Thomas and later took him to a restaurant to buy him a meal. Thomas tells Victor, "I was mad because I thought my dreams had lied to me. But they didn't. Your dad was my vision. 'Take care of each other' is what my dreams were saying." Having listened to this tale, Victor quietly searches his memories. "He searched . . . and found the good ones, found a few bad ones, added it all up, and smiled." Like the mythological Phoenix, Victor reclaims his love for his father.

On the drive home in Victor's father's truck, he and Thomas-Builds-the-Fire rekindle the bond that they had as boys. But, "Victor knew that he couldn't really be friends with Thomas, even after all that had happened. It was cruel, but it was real." Nonetheless, Victor knows that he " . . . owe[s] Thomas something, anything."

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In Sherman Alexie's story "This Is What It Means to Say Phoenix, Arizona" Victor must go to collect his father's remains. His father left when Victor was a child and he hasn't seen or heard from him in all that time.  He is filled with bitterness and anger, and that anger is often directed toward Thomas Builds-the-Fire, whose character is almost a polar opposite of Victor's, yet who also had a kind of relationship with Arnold, Victor's dad.  Through the process of his journey with Thomas, Victor gains awareness of what happened to his father, why he left, and why he has let his life go in the direction it has gone.  He learns forgiveness and acceptance, and, although he is still conflicted and has to deal with the same situations at home that he left when he went to Arizona, he has matured and his relationship with Thomas has also shifted to the point that he understands Thomas a little better along with a new understanding of himself.

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As the story opens, Victor finds himself in need of money to travel from Spokane to Arizona in order to manage a few tasks following the death of his father. He can't afford to fly there and doesn't have a car, so he begrudgingly accepts the offer from his childhood friend, Thomas, to pay for the trip as long as Victor takes him along.

Though they enjoyed each other as young kids, Victor and Thomas grew apart by their teenage years; in fact, Victor had beaten up Thomas when they were fifteen. Thomas had become a storyteller and was respected by no one, and Victor did nothing to spare his childhood friend from the isolation of the town. When he stops to talk with Thomas as the story opens, Victor is embarrassed to even be seen with him:

All the other Indians stared, surprised that Victor was even talking to Thomas. Nobody talked to Thomas because he told the same damn stories over and over again. Victor was embarrassed, but he thought that Thomas might be able to help him.

Victor only talks to Thomas because he needs the money. Thomas is aware of this and willingly places himself in a position to spend some time with his former friend despite knowing that Victor is using him.

During the trip, however, Victor realizes that Thomas has always been there for him. He saved Victor from a wasp nest when they were young, and now he volunteers to go into a trailer which reeks of death in order to help Victor go through his father's belongings. Victor learns that as a child, his own father had helped Thomas and had then asked him to look out for Victor.

In some ways, Victor hasn't changed at all by the story's conclusion. He has no real plans to transform his attitude or to be the friend that Thomas needs:

Victor knew that he couldn't really be friends with Thomas, even after all that had happened. It was cruel but it was real.

Yet after their trip, Victor is ashamed of the way he feels about Thomas, and this is a change from his callous attitude at the story's beginning. He realizes that Thomas deserves something for his loyalty, and so he gives Thomas half of his father's ashes and agrees to stop and listen to Thomas's stories sometime. With these gestures, Victor demonstrates a compassion that he lacks prior to the trip.

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What does the setting of "This Is What It Means to Say Phoenix, Arizona" suggest about the impact of the trip on Victor?

The short story "This Is What It Means to Say Phoenix, Arizona" by Sherman Alexie tells of a young Native American man named Victor who lives on a reservation near Spokane, Washington. He hears that his father died in a trailer in Phoenix, Arizona, and he has to go collect his father's ashes and his pickup truck. His former friend Thomas Builds-the-Fire, a spaced-out storyteller that nobody listens to, lends him some money and accompanies him on the trip.

The story takes place in several settings, and each setting suggests something further about the impact of the trip on Victor. First of all, the setting of the reservation in the beginning focuses on the poverty and hopelessness of most of the Native Americans living there, but it also suggests how the residents help each other in times of distress. For instance, although the Tribal Council doesn't give Victor all the money he needs, it gives him a donation to help him on his way. Afterwards, Thomas Builds-the-Fire supplies the rest of the funds.

The next setting is the airplane. Victor and Thomas have now left the reservation and are on neutral ground. Thomas displays his depth in comfortably engaging in conversation with the white Olympic-class gymnast sitting next to him. Victor begins to realize that there may be more to Thomas than he had thought.

Victor and Thomas then arrive at Victor's father's trailer, the place where he died. It still stinks like a corpse because his father stayed there in hot weather for a week after he died before anyone found him. Thomas accompanies Victor into the smelly trailer to help him, and Victor learns that Thomas had a special relationship with Victor's father and had promised his father that he would look out for Victor. The impact on Victor here is twofold: he learns something new about his father and further bonds with Thomas.

There is a short scene in the midst of a barren stretch of Nevada while they are driving the pickup home. Victor has been driving for many hours, but as soon as Thomas takes the wheel, he runs over a jackrabbit. Victor learns that Thomas is too ethereal to handle practical things like driving.

The final setting is the same as the first. They are back at the reservation, and they feel the ennui setting in again. They realize that they will not be able to outwardly be friends as they were on the trip. Nevertheless, it is evident that inwardly they have become more intimate.

We see, then, that at each stage of the story, the various settings contribute to the impact of the trip on Victor in different ways.

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What are Victor's conflicts in This Is What It Means to Say Phoenix, Arizona?

Victor is conflicted between the desire to be a secularized, future-oriented modern American who drives cars and listens to a stereo—a person who has left behind the tribal ways of his Native American ancestry—and the pull of that native heritage. This heritage is represented by Thomas Builds-the-Fire, a visionary who believes in the old ways.

When Thomas agrees to lend Victor the money to fly to get his father's ashes and his belongings as long as Thomas can come along, Victor is confronted with the tribal past he has tried to sever himself from. Thomas has promised Victor's father he will look out for Victor, and he takes that role seriously. In fact, during their time together, Thomas "lights a fire" under Victor that opens up the possibility that he can change and grow.

Victor is impressed by Thomas's ability to connect to people. Victor realizes, too, that Thomas connects him to his father and his native past. As they talk, childhood memories come flooding back to Victor. When Thomas, driving Victor's father's truck, runs over a rabbit, Victor is able to agree with the native wisdom that the rabbit chose suicide. He begins to see that he too can make choices, as the rabbit did, and that perhaps instead of putting his two identities in conflict, he can embrace his heritage and integrate it into his modern-American life. Although Victor does not change much during the story, through Thomas, he is beginning to contemplate new possibilities.

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