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The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven.

Although it is highly uncommon for American writers to be successful at both

poetry and fiction, it is the rule rather than the exception for American Indian novelists. Scott Momaday, James Welch, Gerald Vizenor, Louise Erdrich, Leslie Silko, and Linda Hogan have published both novels and collections of verse. The latest to join the list is Sherman Alexie. He initially achieved notice for his poetry collections I Would Steal Horses, Old Shirts & New Skins, and First Indian on the Moon, and gained a measure of prominence when his 1992 collection of prose and verse, The Business of Fancy Dancing, was selected by the New York Times as one of its Notable Books of the Year. His latest work, The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven, somewhere between a novel and a collection of short stories, a la Louise Erdrich's Love Medicine establishes him not only as one of the best of the Indian writers but as one of the most promising of the new generation of American writers.

Alexie is Spokane and Coeur d'Alene, and The Lone Ranger is about growing up Indian on the fez in eastern Washington. A major theme of the book is the feeling of despair, guilt, and helplessness that overcomes Indians as they and their friends and relatives give up on life and lapse into unemployment and alcoholism. The story here is not a bleak one, however; it is leavened with humor, and the writing is powerful and lyrical enough to transmute the dross of Spokane existence into something fascinating.

Alexie introduces us to a colorful cast of characters: Lester FallsApart, David WalksAlong, Thomas Builds-the-Fire, and Frank Many Horses, among many others. More than most ethnic groups, Indians have a strong sense of history; they think constantly of their glamorous past of mounted warfare. They are painfully aware that the days of stealing horses and making war are over, but they are not sure what to replace those activities with. The chief substitute is basketball, a game that reservation Indians love as much as urban blacks do. Unfortunately, whereas blacks commonly use sports as a way out of the ghetto, Indians, though they are often as gifted, are so tied to tribal life that it is extremely rare for them to make it to college as athletes or scholars.

Words that recur frequently in The Lone Ranger are survival and forgiveness. Survival is a constant concern in what Alexie describes as "the generation of HUD house, of car wreck and cancer, of commodity cheese and beef." The self-destructiveness of the characters is appalling: alcoholism and its related catastrophe, the car wreck, are pandemic. Indians are sensitive rather than callous, however, "the most sensitive people on the planet," and so they feel terrible guilt and constantly seek forgiveness.

Louise Erdrich portrays a similar bunch of scuzzy lumpen types in Love Medicine and, through compassion and humor, transforms them into characters we care about. Alexie does this for his crew, and adds an element of the exuberant magical realism Gerald Vizenor employs in his Griever books. For instance, in the "Family Portrait" section of The Lone Ranger he writes:

In the summer of 1972 or 1973, or only in our minds the reservation disappeared. . . . Just like that there was nothing there beyond the bottom step. . . . My father was happily drunk and he stumbled off the bottom step before any of us could stop him. He came back years later with diabetes and a pocketful of quarters. The seeds in the cuffs of his pants dropped to the floor of our house and grew into orange trees.

Like Erdrich and Vizenor, Alexie has turned the lives and dreams of the people of his reservation into superb literature.

Alan R. Velie University of Oklahoma
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Author:Velie, Alan R.
Publication:World Literature Today
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Mar 22, 1994
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