Publisher: Perennial; First Edition edition (September 1994)
“So why am I telling you that these stories are true? First of all they’re not really true. They are the vision of one individual looking at the lives of his family and his entire tribe, so these stories are necessarily biased, incomplete, exaggerated, deluded, and often just plain wrong. But in trying to make them true and real, I am writing what might be called reservation realism.”–Sherman Alexie
So what is reservation realism? Through the course of these twenty-four interconnected short stories you learn of life on the Spokane Indian Reservation and of the many Native Americans who call it home. Victor Joseph and his family and friends, like Thomas Builds-the-Fire are the narrative centers. The stories of the modern Indians are not very hopeful, and are drenched in alcoholism and all kinds of abuse. Despite these characters being the victims of circumstance, Sherman Alexie makes these stories easier to handle with humor and unforgettable characters.
I’m usually a person who tries to block out reality and search for “happily ever afters,” but despite that I still loved this book. Alexie’s humorous voice and beautiful prose made this collection so dear to my heart. The characters in this book are searching for their different versions of happy and some might never get it, but that’s not stopping them from trying.
One of my favorites from this book is the title story where Victor returns to the reservation from living in Seattle with his white girlfriend.
“ In Seattle, I broke lamps. She and I would argue and I’d break a lamp, just pick it up and throw it down. At first she’d buy replacement lamps, expensive and beautiful. But after a while she’d buy lamps from Goodwill or garage sales. Then she just gave up the idea entirely and we’d argue in the dark.
“You’re just like your brother,” she’d yell. “Drunk all the time and stupid.”
“My brother don’t drink that much.”
She and I never tried to hurt each other physically. I did love her, after all, and she loved me. But those arguments were just as damaging as a fist. Words can be like that, you know? Whenever I get into arguments now, I remember her and I also remember Muhammad Ali. He knew the power of his words, too. Even though he only had an IQ of 80 or so, Ali was a genius. And she was a genius, too. She knew exactly what to say to cause me the most pain.
But don’t get me wrong. I walked through that relationship with an executioner’s hood. Or more appropriately, with war paint and sharp arrows.”
The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven is poetic and real. It’s the perfect Sherman Alexie book to start with, because once you read this one, you’ll want to read more.
On a side note, the 1998 movie Smoke Signals is based of “This is What it Means to say Phoenix, Arizona,” a short story from this book. It involves my favorite,Thomas-Builds-the-Fire.