The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fist Fight in Heaven by Sherman Alexie was recommended to me by a beloved professor after I had mentioned reading The Inconvenient Indian. This is not my first time reading Alexie. Although I am more familiar with his body of poetry, his short story collection carries his signature voice: thoughtful, well-spoken, but sorrowful. His sense of humour is like a twisting knife, it’s so sharp it’s impressive.
The Lone Ranger and Tonto is a short story collection compiling the many tales of the many folks from the Spokane Indian Reserve. The woes of the Spokane Indian Reserve seem neverending. Alexie’s characters live in a vacuum of alcohol, diabetes, fancydancing, and ribbon shirts. And while some will decry these as hurtful stereotypes, Alexie includes them simply as character traits. His book is a “thinly veiled memoir” he admits in the introduction.
It was particularly trying to keep all the characters straight as Alexie builds out a microcosmic universe tying over generations of families and a whole lot of people named Junior. Having grown up in a small town I appreciated the effect immediately. Each character is new yet old somehow and their stories blur together. Linear time also seems to not be important with the year and generation of the characters varying tale-to-tale. Alexie is a masterful short story teller, each one compelling and capable of standing alone, while also standing stronger when put together.
My favourite story by far is “Jesus Christ’s Half-Brother is Alive and Well on the Spokane Indian Reservation”. It plays with time as previously mentioned but also combines the heartrendingly real with the semi-supernatural–that tantalizing mix of shamanism and Coca-Cola which Alexie does so well. The unnamed narrator of this particular tale is easily one of my favourite characters, being roped into taking care of James (who’s actual name is unpronounceable but means “He Who Crawls Silently Through the Grass with a Small Bow and One Bad Arrow Hunting for Enough Deer to Feed the Whole Tribe”) a baby who is thrown from a window of a burning building and dents his head. It’s hard not to love both of them, each a little bit funny but growing despite the odds.
I happened to have borrowed the 2005 edition which is a reprint with an added introduction by Alexie plus two additional short stories removed from the first manuscript: “Flight” and “Junior Polatkin’s Wild West Show.” In his introduction Alexie challenges readers to decide whether they agree with the decisions to remove these stories. Personally, I don’t see the children’s fiction in “Flight” which is the reason given for it being pulled. “Junior Polatkin’s Wild West Show” certainly contained many of the same elements of other stories, which were also developed better in said stories, but I like the effect of having it cap off the entire book. This way, his book begins with introducing readers to the Spokane Indian Reservation and a final returning to it at the end. A far better ending than “Witnesses, Secret and Not” in my opinion, it being more reflective of the central themes although it ends with Junior Polatkin instead of Victor, the more frequent protagonist.
Alexie has wormed his way into being one of my favourite storytellers and an exemplar of how to tell a short story. He also writes just as he sounds in interviews, which I think is endearing. Most of all, his humour is very similar in style to King’s a blend of the sardonic and the self-effacing. This is certainly a book for those who like to laugh and cry, either at the same time or in any given order.