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;
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.
about the book (official sherman alexie website)
From Kirkus Reviews, 30-June-1993: