One Indian Doesn't Tell the Other

New York times book review
of "The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven"
by Sherman Alexi

From The New York Times, 17-Oct-1993;
reviewed by Reynolds Price

SHERMAN ALEXIE was born in 1966. Victor, the central character and sometime narrator of at least half of these 22 short stories, is the same age. Like Mr. Alexie, Victor is a member of the Spokane Indian tribe and continues to live in the state of Washington. But where Victor has no diversions more effective than alcohol from the bleakness of his reservation life, Sherman Alexie has a striking lyric power to lament and praise that same crucial strain of modern American life -- the oldest and most unendingly punished strain, the Native American, as it's been transformed for many Indians through a long five centuries of brutal reduction to powerlessness and its lethal companions: alcoholism, malnutrition and suicidal self-loathing. There are three stories here that could stand in any collection of excellence -- "The Trial of Thomas Builds-the-Fire," "Jesus Christ's Half-Brother Is Alive and Well on the Spokane Indian Reservation" and "Witnesses, Secret and Not."

Young as he is, though, Mr. Alexie has employed his gift briskly. The present volume is his first full-length work of fiction, but last year he published "The Business of Fancydancing," a widely praised collection of poems and sketches, and there are earlier collections of poetry, "Old Shirts & New Skins," "I Would Steal Horses" and "First Indian on the Moon." Though the themes, the tones of voice and the names of characters are often identical in the two most recent volumes, "The Business of Fancydancing" consists mostly of verse -- laconic and grim but often humorous free-verse responses to the same world that underlies all Mr. Alexie's work.

"The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven" is entirely in prose, its tales ranging in length from fewer than five pages to more than 10. Each part is named promisingly -- the title piece is a good example -- yet a majority of the pieces quickly dispense with the common reader's expectations of short narrative. There is very little plot in any of them -- plot in the sense of consecutive action with emotional outcome. Little human conflict is witnessed in present time; almost no attention is paid to whatever visible world surrounds the vocal line of narration, though there are frequent generic references to HUD housing, crowded saloons and powwows enriched by the omnipresent Indian fry bread. With those sparse hints, the reader is expected to perform a number of jobs that are generally assumed by the writer. Anyone impelled to enter Mr. Alexie's world must conspire with the sound of his fictional voices to create a new world, to people it and then to feel along with a set of characters about whom we're told little more than their names and a few slender facts about their age and health.

Knowledge of the immensely imposing and varied body of recent fiction by American Indians -- from N. Scott Momaday and James Welch to Leslie Marmon Silko -- will suggest that there's nothing especially typical of Native Americans in Mr. Alexie's limited angle of vision and in the kinds of dense filters he interposes between the reader and the world implied. In a terse three sentences in his beautiful closing story, however, the narrator seems to claim otherwise. He says: "One Indian doesn't tell another what to do. We just watch things happen and then make comments. It's all about reaction as opposed to action."

However unpromising a creed that would seem to be for a fiction writer who hopes to be read by a culturally assorted audience, its offhand claim defines the motive force of these pieces. The great surprise is that given such narrow bounds, Mr. Alexie's strength proves sufficient to compel clear attention through sizable lengths of first-person voice (the hardest voice to make compelling, given all our dread of the first-person bore; and most of Mr. Alexie's voices resemble one another closely). The skills by which he lures us on through the quickly familiar atmosphere are a stark lucidity of purpose and an extreme simplicity of cast and action (there are seldom more than two characters present in any scene). Above all, he lures us with a live and unremitting lyric energy in the fast-moving, occasionally surreal and surprisingly comic language of his progress.

PASSAGES as lively as the following are not infrequent, and go a good way toward lifting the stingy minimalist gloom that might otherwise sink more of these sketches than the two or three that actually founder: "In the outside world, a person can be a hero one second and a nobody the next. Think about it. Do white people remember the names of those guys who dove into that icy river to rescue passengers from that plane wreck a few years back? Hell, white people don't even remember the names of dogs who save entire families from burning up in house fires by barking."

However exhilarating such vitality proves to be throughout the volume, a sympathetic reader may finally dwell on a serious question -- and it's a question that arises in the presence of any writer who not only is very young but who is also publishing rapidly. Has Sherman Alexie moved too fast for his present strength? A youthful prodigy is far scarcer in narrative writing than in any other art. There have been great poems from teen-agers, great pieces of music and admirable paintings; but there's no sizable body of impressive fiction by any writer much under 30. The power to dredge up useful narrative lumber from the packed unconscious mostly requires long years of mute waiting while the mind flows over and reshapes its memories into public objects of arresting interest and wide utility.

Despite his extraordinary powers, in the quick succession of two books in two years Sherman Alexie has plumbed a number of obsessive themes and relationships as deeply as they permit; and moments of gray, unrevealing monotony are too common. Though no one can tell a writer -- least of all a young one -- where to look and how to see, the reader who admires Mr. Alexie's plentiful moments of startling freshness and his risky dives into unmapped waters can wish for him now that he discovers a new and merciful rhythm that will let him find new eyes, new sights and patterns in a wider world, and a battery of keener voices for launching his urgent knowledge toward us.

SLOW DANCING WITH SKELETONS
From "The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven."

"You don't really believe that . . . ?" I asked Thomas.

"Don't need to believe anything. It just is."

Thomas stood up and walked away. He wouldn't even try to tell us any stories again for a few years. We had never been very good to him, even as boys, but he had always been kind to us. . . .

Before he left for good, though, he turned back to Junior and me and yelled at us. I couldn't really understand what he was saying, but Junior swore he told us not to slow dance with our skeletons.

"What the hell does that mean?" I asked.

"I don't know," Junior said.

There are things you should learn. Your past is a skeleton walking one step behind you, and your future is a skeleton walking one step in front of you. Maybe you don't wear a watch, but your skeletons do, and they always know what time it is. Now, these skeletons are made of memories, dreams and voices. And they can trap you in the in-between, between touching and becoming. But they're not necessarily evil, unless you let them be. . . . What you have to do is keep moving, keep walking, in step with your skeletons. They ain't ever going to leave you, so you don't have to worry about that. Your past ain't going to fall behind, and your future won't get too far ahead. Sometimes, though, your skeletons will talk to you, tell you to sit down and take a rest, breathe a little. Maybe they'll make you promises, tell you all the things you want to hear.

Sometimes your skeletons will dress up as beautiful Indian women and ask you to slow dance. Sometimes your skeletons will dress up as your best friend and offer you a drink, one more for the road. . . .

But, no matter what they do, keep walking, keep moving. And don't wear a watch. Hell, Indians never need to wear a watch because your skeletons will always remind you about the time. See, it is always now. That's what Indian time is. The past, the future, all of it is wrapped up in the now. That's how it is. We are trapped in the now.

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Links:

about the book (official sherman alexie website)

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From Kirkus Reviews, 30-June-1993:
With wrenching pain and wry humor, the talented Alexie, a Spokane/Coeur d'Alene Indian--and previously a small-press author (The Business of Fancydancing, a collection of poetry and prose-- not reviewed--etc.)--presents contemporary life on the Spokane Indian Reservation through 22 linked stories. Here, people treat each other (and life) with amused tolerance--although anger can easily erupt in this environment of endemic alcoholism and despair. The history of defeat is ever- present; every attempt to hold onto cultural tradition aches with poignancy: Thomas-Builds-the-Fire is the storyteller everyone mocks and no one listens to; Aunt Nezzy, who sews a traditional full- length beaded dress that turns out to be too heavy to wear, believes that the woman ``who can carry the weight of this dress on her back...will save us all.'' Meanwhile, young men dream of escape--going to college, being a basketball star--but failure seems preordained. These tales, though sad and at times plain- spokenly didactic, are often lyrically beautiful and almost always very funny. Chapters focus on and are narrated by several different characters, but voices and perspectives often become somewhat indistinguishable--confusing until you stop worrying about who is speaking and choose to listen to the voice of the book itself and enter into its particular sensibility. Irony, grim humor, and forgiveness help characters transcend pain, anger and loss while the same qualities make it possible to read Alexie's fiction without succumbing to hopelessness. Forgiveness seems to be the last moral/ethical value left standing: the ability both to judge and to love gives the book its searing yet affectionate honesty.

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From Booklist, 1-Sept-1993:
Alexie confronts as much as he depicts modern Native American life in these stories set in and around the Spokane Indian Reservation. The narrative voice that relates and links these stories is powerful because of its directness. For example, in "A Drug Called Tradition," the narrator explains that Native Americans can sometimes hear their ancestors laughing in the trees, "but we never can tell whether they're laughing at the Indians or the whites. I think they're laughing at pretty much everybody." The narrator's diagnosis is equally direct, and cultural assumptions about the influence of the past on the present and future are clear, but they are not beyond the narrator's scrutiny as he wonders "how each of us constructs our past to justify what we feel now." Both the narrator and the stories he tells offer insights that are well worth reading.