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The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven (book review)

One morsel review: short stories about reservation/Indian life where a strong surrealism sheds light on a painfully real portrayal of life.


000163The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven
Sherman Alexie


Genre: anthology


The first of Alexie’s narrative works is a collection of twenty-one stories about life on and off the reservation, told in a very unique, personal voice.


This was the first book by Sherman Alexie I read and I’ll admit it puzzled me at first. So many of the characters were unusual – at least, for me – the way they were handled too, and the structure of many stories was also unusual. It took me a while to grasp the true nature of these narrations after I finished the book. But I didn’t realise it at first. At first I just read them and tasted them and discover them.

It puzzled me… and I liked it

Besides, I’m this kind of reader. When I read, I just read without filters. I let the story and the characters come to me. I never speculate, I never analyse. If I start doing this, it means the story isn’t working for me, but if it does work, I let myself fall into the story and let it bring me to the end.
This is what this anthology did to me. I fell into it because it was so haunting, and although it puzzled me in many places, I just accepted it as part of the game. Only when I came to the end did I start thinking about it, making connections, recognizing symbols and themes. This was an important process with this anthology in particular, because most of what’s told here isn’t written.
When I came to the end of the anthology, puzzled as I was, I wondered, did I like him?
After taking a breath and a close look, I knew: yes, I did.

This isn’t an optimistic work. This isn’t a pessimistic work.

I do remember the stories I enjoyed the most, still I wouldn’t be able to tell the plot of any of them other than This Is What It Means to Say Phoenix, Arizona, but that’s only because I’ve read this story many times. The feelings these stories awakened in me are very vivid, though. It’s a mix of positive and negative, a sense of hope for the future with roots digging deep into the past, but also awareness of a past that is still alive and may hamper the present. It isn’t harsh refusal of the past, and it isn’t an unconditional hope in the future. It’s some sort of uncomfortable balance. A sense that bad and good things from the past are still there and bad and good things in the future may still happen and everything is connected to the present. Both good and bad co-exist in the present, but also past and future co-exist in the present and they overlap and you’re never absolutely sure what’s happening, or what happened, or what will happen.
The co-existence of these different levels of reality and time creates a strong surrealism which goes beyond reality. This is what allows the reader to see the realities described here in a new light, in ways that no mere description could allow.

As well as past, present and future overlap, so do meanings and symbolisms. Some stories are so obviously symbolic (like the one that gives the title to the book, which is one of my favourite) that you just can’t ignore it. Yes, it is a story in itself, but there is no way you don’t perceive a different story underneath the one you are reading. Like watching a film in 3D without the proper glasses. It’s a strange feeling, and yes, it is a bit unsettling, but I think it is unsettling only if you leave it at that and don’t try to decipher it. If you do try to decipher it, a completely new world opens up for you, a new world of meanings and connections. Granted, you still won’t get any answers, but at least you’ll know the questions.

My favourite stories are those about Thomas Builds-the-Fire

The stories I liked the most are the three where Thomas Builds-the-Fire appears. The first one, A Drug Called Tradition, is a mix of different threads. Stories, memories and the   legends intertwined with the actual events of the story and everything converges on Thomas, the one who knows those stories and keeps them. He also tells them to anyone who would listen… or wouldn’t listen. Sometimes, he just tells the story to himself.
This is in fact one of the core points of Thomas as a character: his stories are about the past, but that past is not dead and it can help make sense of the present and prepare for the future. His knowledge is there and people get the chance to learn because he’s very liberal with it. He’s the one who keeps tradition alive and shares it. Besides, it would be hard to miss the symbolic meaning of his name “Builds-the-Fire”.
This Is what it Means to Say Phoenix, Arizona is one of my absolute favourites. When Victor receives the news that his father died far away in another state and he’s supposed to go fetch the few belongings he left, he’s forced to go on that journey with Thomas. It’s a journey in every sense, a journey to a place, a journey to Victor’s heart of hearts, a journey to discover Victor’s father’s heart, a journey through Thomas’ stories and what they mean.
The journey has always been a powerful storytelling tools. This journey, that is both physical and metaphorical, it’s a trope coming form the ancient times and still fascinating us today. I was told once that the journey to the oracle, which was a real-life practice in ancient Greece, was this kind of experience. People would travel alone to the seat of the oracle, which was normally located far away from the cities. Travellers would be alone, away from everyday life and responsibilities, away from everyday preoccupations, and they could detached themselves from their life, so they could look at it and at their problems from a completely different perspective. Very often, they didn’t need the oracle’s help when they finally reached it, because they already sorted out their problem by themselves throughout their journey.
This Is what it Means to Say Phoenix, Arizona reminds me of that. It’s a journey away from something, but also toward something. It’s the chance and the possibility to see life in a completely new way.

Indian life through a surreal mirror, that's how you see the truth. #amreading Lone Range and Tonto #ShermanAlexie Share on X

The Trial of Thomas Builds-the-Fire is the story that made me see the entire book in a different way. In the other two stories devoted to Thomas, we learn that he tells stories to himself because seldom people listen. In The Trial of Thomas Builds-the-Fire, we learn that Thomas didn’t speak to anyone for forty years. I thought that was in contradiction with what it was said before, although at the core of the character there was still a strong spirit that would light the present with tales of the past. So I started thinking: what if Thomas isn’t the same character in all the stories? What if he’s the same kind of character, instead? What if the same is true for Victor?
They would become symbols, no? Thomas would be the strength of tradition and memory, Victor would be the urge to do something with his life now, though this often ends up in a mess. I could see then that all the characters carrying the same name had something in common, but were never the same exact character.
That added to the sense of surrealism. In a way, these characters are symbols, so partly stereotypes, still they are presented like people having their own lives. Once again, they creates levels of reality and possible meanings. It’s some kind of journey in itself, where you get the possibility to see characters and stories through many different angles.
And this is the true heart of this book. It’s a journey and I enjoyed the ride very much.



  1. Every little hurricane
  2. Because my father always said he was the only Indian who saw Jimi Hendrix play “The Star-Spangled Banner” at Woodstock
  3. Crazy Horse dreams
  4. The only traffic signal on the reservation doesn’t flash red anymore
  5. Amusements
  6. This is what it means to say Phoenix, Arizona
  7. The Fun House
  8. All I wanted to do was dance
  9. The trial of Thomas Builds-the-Fire
  10. Distances
  11. Jesus Christ’s half-brother is alive and well on the Spokane Indian Reservation
  12. A train is an order of occurrence designed to lead to some result
  13. A good story
  14. The final annual All-Indian horseshoe pitch and barbecue
  15. Imagining the reservation
  16. The approximate size of my favorite tumor
  17. Indian education
  18. The Lone Ranger and Tonto fistfight in heaven
  19. Family portrait
  20. Somebody kept saying powwow
  21. Witnesses, secret and not

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