As many of you have written before, it can feel daunting to write about a Five-Star Read. The sense of wanting to do a book justice is palpable. Sherman Alexie is one of my favorite writers, despite having previously read only one of this books (The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian. It’s one of my favorite books ever. I’ve listened to it and read it with my eyes, and I highly recommend both experiences.) I came to love him through listening to his podcast with fellow author Jess Walter – A Tiny Sense of Accomplishment. It’s on (maybe?) permanent hiatus but you can still listen to the episodes wherever you find podcasts. The two authors are good friends and just have a marvelous time together discussing books, basketball, the writing process, and interviewing authors. But I digress.
The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fist Fight in Heaven is a collection of short stories, published in 1993. I managed to space my reading out over nearly a month, just reading one story a day. Previously my short story collection habit was to blow through the collection like a novel, often becoming bored and restless near the end. But reading one story a day was a nice little break from my other reading, and it gave me time to sit with the story and think about it. I’m indebted to Buried in Print for inspiring me to approach short stories differently.
These stories have a typically Alexie-like tone, a mixture of sadness and humor, a wry, understated humor. They often contain magical elements, dreams, visions. They are about broken families, life on and off the Spokane Indian Reservation (Alexie uses the term Indian throughout, not Native American.) They are about drunkenness, losing and finding love, powwows, friendships, basketball, quests, stories.
Uncle Moses gave no thought to his passing on most days. Instead, he usually finished his sandwich, held the last bite of bread and meat in his mouth like the last word of a good story.
“Ya-hey,” he called out to the movement of air, the unseen. A summer before, Uncle Moses listened to his nephew, John-John, talking a story. John-John was back from college and told Moses that 99 percent of the matter in the universe is invisible to the human eye. Ever since, Moses made sure to greet what he could not see.
This was a strong collection, with hardly any clunkers. One of my favorite stories was “This Is What It Means to Say Phoenix, Arizona,” the bones of which formed the movie Smoke Signals. Alexie wrote the screenplay for it, which I didn’t know back when I saw it in 1998. (I watched it again last week, and it was still good. It’s a bit more comedic than the stories here, but still worth a watch.) Anyway, the gist of the story is that Victor’s father, who had left the family long ago and moved to Phoenix, has died. Victor wants to go get his ashes and a little money his dad left him but doesn’t have the money for the trip. Thomas Builds-the-Fire is another Indian on the reservation who grew up with Victor. They were friends for a time, but as they grew older, Thomas started having visions and his stories started weirding people out. He was a “storyteller that nobody wanted to listen to.” He offers Victor the money to collect his father’s ashes, but in return wants to accompany him on the trip.
“Victor, I’m sorry about your father,” Thomas said.
“How did you know about it?” Victor asked.
“I heard it on the wind. I heard it from the birds. I felt it in the sunlight. Also, your mother was just in here crying.”
It’s a quietly beautiful story about Victor learning to see the father who left him in a little bit of a different light, through a story that Thomas tells him. It’s a story about two former friends making peace with one another but not quite becoming friends again.
“Wait,” Thomas yelled suddenly from his porch. “I just got to ask one favor.”
Victor stopped the pickup, leaned out the window, and shouted back. “What do you want?”
“Just one time when I’m telling a story somewhere, why don’t you stop and listen?” Thomas asked.
Victor waved him arms to let him know that the deal was good. It was a fair trade, and that was all Victor has ever wanted from his whole life. So Victor drove his father’s pickup toward home while Thomas went into his house, closed the door behind him, and heard a new story come to him in the silence afterwards.
Alexie’s writing is simple in style but complicated and hefty in substance. I love reading a story where things aren’t tied up neatly in a bow, but instead feel like a mixed bag of emotions. Those kinds of stories ring true, feel like life. I am so glad I finally read this (one of my own books – yay!) I want to read everything Alexie has written and will write in the future. He’s a storyteller worth savoring.
Have you read this, or any other of Alexie’s works? Have you seen the movie Smoke Signals? Talk to me in the comments!