I had known of Sherman Alexie as a Poet, but until I saw the movie “Smoke Signals” and noticed in the credits that it was based on this book, I had never read Alexie’s short stories. I seldom read fiction at all, but upon starting “The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven”, I was immediately enthralled. The book contains 22 short stories, which take place on or near the Spokane Reservation in Washington State. In “The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven“, Sherman Alexie does for reservation life what Jack Kerouac did for the Beat Poetry movement in novels such as “The Dharma Bums“.
The main characters are Victor Joseph and Thomas Builds-the-Fire, two very different people. Victor, a former high school basketball star is a popular figure, while Thomas is a storyteller looked upon largely with contempt or amusement. Still, their lives are intertwined with each other and everyone else on the reservation. Through stories of their families and relationships, Alexie paints a vivid picture of the reality of modern Native American life on and off the reservation. Powwows, fry bread, and fancydancing are interspersed with basketball, alcoholism, and poverty in stories that invoke strong feelings of poignancy and longing; along with fatalism and injustice. Even within the reservation community, tensions are present between traditionalists and non traditionalists; urban and reservation dwellers; employed and jobless. Yet a close sense of identity surges through the stories like a tide. Even those who leave the reservation are pulled inexorably back.
With a backdrop of wit and bleak humor, Alexie masterfully uses dream sequences, flashbacks, and diary entries. Narratives will seem surreal and random, and then suddenly merge into the same tale. His stories are as deeply moving and lyrical as his poetry. “The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven” will resonate strongly with anyone who has ever felt like an outsider, or who wants a glimpse into the world of contemporary reservation life.