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This Is What It Means to Say Phoenix, Arizona

by Sherman Alexie

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Why can't Victor and Thomas remain friends after returning to the reservation in "This Is What It Means to Say Phoenix, Arizona"?

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In "This Is What It Means to Say Phoenix, Arizona," Victor and Thomas cannot be friends when they return to the reservation because Thomas is ostracized in their community and Victor does not wish to suffer rejection by befriending him. 

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The friendship between Victor and Thomas had suffered a heavy blow years before when Thomas had prophecied that Victor’s father would leave forever. Not only did Victor violently attack Thomas at that time, but later, he also could not forgive him for being right. The trip they take together after Victor’s father dies is a temporary but necessary reconciliation. Thomas is demonstrating that he has forgiven Victor for attacking him, while Victor is acknowledging that Thomas is a true prophet. Their mutually experienced journey is like a mythical quest, which occurs in time and space that are outside of the normal time–space. After they return to the reservation, however, they also return to normality.

Sherman Alexie provides considerable ambiguity in regard to their future relationship, however. In the immediate present, Victor believes that he has come back home the same person as he was before he left, which is a form of self-delusion. He thinks that his friends will regard him as being the same, including in his attitudes against Thomas. Victor knows that he cannot “really be friends with Thomas.” But Victor has established that he believes in the truth of one of Thomas’s prophecies, and therefore, he leaves himself open to continuing to believe in him at a later date. His certainty that Thomas will continue to be a “crazy storyteller” may lead him to accept Thomas’s invitation to “stop and listen” to him telling stories at a later date.

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Another reason Victor and Thomas cannot be friends is that they harbor differing perspectives on life.

While Victor considers himself a modern Indian, Thomas cherishes the storytelling traditions of his people. Thomas also has a deep faith in prophetic visions, something Victor does not share. Here, it is very likely that Thomas's previous prophecy about Victor's father constitutes the main reason for the continuing rift between the two.

On the surface, there is a taboo surrounding Thomas's prophetic visions. They are considered backward and maybe even superstitious in nature. On a deeper level, though, Thomas's visions contain some uncomfortable truths. In fact, it is Thomas's habit of analysis and seeming obsession with truth that makes Victor uncomfortable. To Victor, some truths are too painful to be acknowledged. This is why he is upset when Thomas prophesies his father's departure.

In the story, there is a flashback to the time when both Thomas and Victor were still boys. In this flashback, it is the Fourth of July. Thomas questions why Indians celebrate the holiday. He makes the rueful comment that "it ain't like it was our independence everybody was fighting for." In reply, Victor teases that Thomas thinks about "things too much."

Victor and Thomas cannot be friends because of their divergent perspectives about what it means to be Indian in a modern context.

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Thomas closed his eyes and this story came to him: "We are all given one thing by which our lives are measured, one determination. Mine are the stories which can change or not change the world. It doesn't matter which as long as I continue to tell the stories.

The text makes it fairly clear why they cannot be friends, though one always feels there must be some additional reason. Thomas says to Victor that he understands things between them will continue as the were before, that Victor's friends would cause him too much grief if Victor and Thomas were seen to be friends. So the surface reason is that since Thomas is ostracized in the community because of his stories, which are actually prophesies, Victor will not opt to suffer the same ostracism by befriending him.

Victor knew that Thomas would remain the crazy storyteller who talked to dogs and cars, who listened to the wind and pine trees. Victor knew that he couldn't really be friends with Thomas, ....

"I know how it is," Thomas said. "I know you ain't going to treat me any better than you did before. I know your friends would give you too much [grief] about it."

A deeper reason has to do with why Thomas's stories are all old meaningless repeats of stories. When they were young, Thomas told the story to Victor of Victor's father leaving home and never coming back. When it came true, Victor's eventual reaction was to beat Thomas up.

It was on that night that Thomas's stories dried up leaving him with only old dead stories. One reason that Victor and Thomas can't be friends after returning is that the breach the truth caused between then--caused by Victor's reaction--was too great to overcome. Nonetheless, Victor and Thomas are reconciled by the promise exchanged as they part because when Thomas goes in his house and closes his eyes, he has a new story given to him and released in his mind.

"[When] I'm telling a story somewhere, why don't you stop and listen?"

Thomas went into his house, closed the door behind him, and heard a new story come to him in the silence afterwards.

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Why can’t Victor be friends with Thomas when they get back to the reservation in "This Is What It Means to Say Phoenix, Arizona"?

Victor can’t be friends with Thomas when they get back to the reservation because Thomas tells too many stories and isn’t well-liked.

In Sherman Alexie’s short story “This Is What It Means to Say Phoenix, Arizona,” Victor and Thomas Builds-the-Fire were friends once upon a time. The story moves between the present and the past. The two aren’t friends in the present, but when they were younger, they were friends. As a kid, Victor wanted to hear Thomas’s stories. The short story includes a scene when ten-year-old Victor watches the Fourth of July celebration with Thomas. They both agree that it’s ironic that they celebrate the holiday. Then Victor asks Thomas to tell him a story.

Fast forward to the present day. Now, the stories aren’t comforting or nice but an irritation. People on the reservation, aside from Victor, don’t want to listen to the tales anymore. Yet, according to the narrator, Thomas keeps telling his stories “long after people had stopped listening.” This practice turns Thomas into an outcast. Victor doesn’t want to be associated with someone so derided. Thomas tells Victor that he understands the situation. “I know your friends would give you too much shit about it,” he says.

Thus, even after all Thomas has done to help Victor with his departed dad, Victor can’t be friends with Thomas because of his stories and what amounts to peer pressure. However, Victor promises to listen to one of Thomas’ stories sometime, which suggests a cordial relationship isn’t out of the question.

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In "This is What It Means to Say Phoenix, Arizona" by Alexie, why has Thomas evoked such dislike and hostility in Victor and others of the tribe?

It seems that Alexie is suggesting that Victor and others on the reservation do not see the usefulness of Thomas Builds-the-Fire and his stories. He is a repetitious relic of the past in a modern country. There still is a Tribal Council, and the reservation is a close-knit community, so we could assume that some continue with their native traditions. But even though oral histories, visions, and storytelling may be among those traditions, the people of this community (namely Victor) have grown to ignore Thomas. They ignore him because they don't see the point and because Thomas tends to repeat himself.

Nobody talked to Thomas anymore because he told the same damn stories over and over again. Victor was embarrassed, but thought Thomas might be able to help him. Victor felt a sudden need for tradition.

Victor reluctantly accepts Thomas's help because he needs the money. But it is Thomas's story about Victor's father and Thomas's companionship that really help Victor through the situation, and he comes out of it a new man. Thomas repeats stories because he believes there is something new to be learned from them with each recitation. Just as the mythological Phoenix can rise from its own ashes reborn, a story can provide new truths with each reading or hearing. Those who have shunned or ignored Thomas have stopped believing in this idea. They are more concerned with the day-to-day struggles of life on the reservation and the economic and cultural oppression that goes with that lifestyle. To them, Thomas is a nuisance. They don't think any wisdom from his stories can help them in a modern world.

The symbolism of fire (from Thomas's name), ashes, and being reborn (the mythological Phoenix) are important here. Thomas tells the stories and starts the fire. The fire causes Victor to do some reflection. In some ways, he is reborn (that is, gains a new perspective) in the process.

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In "This is What It Means to Say Phoenix, Arizona" by Alexie, why has Thomas evoked such dislike and hostility in Victor and others of the tribe?

The narrator in Sherman Alexie's "This is What it Means to Say Phoenix, Arizona" sums up the reservation's resentment for Thomas Builds-the Fire succinctly: "Thomas was a storyteller that nobody wanted to listen to. That’s like being a dentist in a town where everybody has false teeth."

According to the narrator, Thomas's storytelling, while a stereotypical Native American trait, isn't needed anymore on the reservation, where the dominant traditions are drinking and poverty. Instead, people look at Thomas in a negative way. After Thomas offers Victor help, Thomas goes home and remembers their relationship as boys, including the "little details, tears and scars, the bicycle they shared for a summer, so many stories."

Once the boys reached adolescence, the stories became a nuisance and Victor rejected Thomas. One day, Victor got drunk and "beat Thomas up for no reason at all." Ever since that day, Victor refused to hang out with Thomas and so did all the other boys at the tribal school because "Nobody wanted to be anywhere near him because of all those stories. Story after story." But the fact that no one listened to these stories didn't deter Thomas from telling them. 

Thomas's refusal to let go of the Indian storytelling tradition makes him an outcast on the reservation. It isn't until Victor accepts this trait and the tradition that they are able to come to an understanding of one another.

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In "This Is What It Means to Say Phoenix, Arizona," why can't Victor be friends with Thomas when they get back to the reservation?

In "This Is What It Means to Say Phoenix, Arizona," Victor knows that he will not be friends with Thomas when they return to the reservation because the forces of peer pressure and habit are too strong for him to resist.

Victor and Thomas were once friends, but Victor became antagonistic toward Thomas when they were teenagers and beat him savagely for no reason when they were both fifteen. Over the course of their journey to Phoenix, they appear to become friends again, but when they return to the reservation, it is clear that this new relationship will not last:

Victor knew that Thomas would remain the crazy storyteller who talked to dogs and cars, who listened to the wind and pine trees. Victor knew that he couldn't really be friends with Thomas, even after all that had happened. It was cruel but it was real.

Thomas understands this and accepts it. He knows that Victor would lose his other friends if he were to try to be kinder to Thomas. Victor's hostility to Thomas has ossified into habit. All Thomas asks is that Victor stops and listens to one of his stories someday. This is the nearest the two men can come to friendship.

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