Monday, November 28, 2005

The Lone Ranger & Tonto Fistfight in Heaven

Sherman Alexie

Ignoring the old maxim about not judging the thing by its cover, let’s begin by looking at this volume’s front, with the familiar basketball hoop against a background of surreal orange and purple thunderheads, in which we can see at the top the shadows of Tonto and the Lone Ranger (by the way—remember the Lone Ranger was a cowboy and Tonto the Indian, and Tonto in Spanish means Stupid). Then, at the bottom, across the back-board of the basketball hoop is the laser-lit trajectory of a trout, as though he has flown past (but not through) the basketball hoop. Oh, and over there behind and to the right of the hoop we can see the smoky flame of a fire burning.

This mighty list of incongruities really does sum up Sherman Alexie’s book of short stories, The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven, which, not incidentally, was the basis for his award-winning film, Smoke Signals. One interesting reaction to Alexie’s work came from J.T., a professor whose opinions I respect. He had seen the film and read a bit of Alexie’s work—perhaps some of the anthologized stories. He said something to the effect of: “I just don’t know where to put those ideas.” In other words, even classifying Alexie’s ideas was difficult for J.T., because they don’t relate to any of the traditions J.T. (a white male) is accustomed to.

That makes a lot of sense. J.T. is aware of the traditions that create his “taste” (I’m using that word for lack of a better one at the moment. But other readers and reviewers aren’t so aware—and that’s how writers outside of the traditions get marginalized. I’m not sure I’m making my point very clearly here—so I started by talking about the picture on the cover of the book. Many people who were steeped in traditional art would look at the book cover and say “What the hell is that supposed to mean?” They might not stop to think about the Indian traditions that informed the art, or that they themselves are biased by their white, traditional upbringing. Similarly, they might not stop to think how limiting their reading has been—and they might not understand that Alexie is doing something with his writing that can teach all of us something.
One thing we learn is Indian truisms, like Victor tells us in the story, “A Drug Called Tradition, “There are things you should learn,” he says (21), and “We are trapped in the now” (22). There’s tremendous depth in these stories. And while they are traditional in that they have a beginning, middle, and end, I find that the forms of the stories are sometimes different, and that there is more of a puzzle to them.

One thing that is somewhat different (and especially interesting to me) is the humor. One example of Indian humor is the way Indians hide from tourists behind “quick joke[s]” (“Amusements” 55). Also, we find out about wry Indian inside jokes. In “All I Wanted to do was Dance,” Victor shares a drink with a drunk stranger, who tells him it is his birthday. Victor asks him, “What tribe are you?” and the stranger tells him, “Cherokee.”
“Really? Shit, I’ve never met a real Cherokee.”
“Neither have I.”
They laugh at this, and share some more drinks, and then the stranger says,
“Hey, cousin [...] You know how to tell the difference between a real Indian and a fake Indian?”
“The real Indian got blisters on his feet. The fake Indian got blisters on his ass” (91).

I like humor like that, because it feels most like authentic Indian humor—like we’re being let in on secret Indian jokes.

Other funny passages, though, are more contemporary and cross pop culture borders. For example, in “Family Portrait,” Junior says, “I’ve seen Indians who could do all this MTV Club dancing, electric slides and shit, all over the place and then look like a white person stumbling through the sawdust of a powwow” (201).
And Norma tells him “You can’t dance very good but you got the heart of a dancer.
Junior tells her “Heart of a dancer [...] And feet like the buffalo” (201).

Alexie doesn’t want to be called Native American, because the term is just a symbol of white guilt to him, is worth reading because he’s a great writer, not because he’s a marginalized writer. His book is fantastic.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Hey, just wanted to let you know that this was really helpful for one of my classes, thank you so much!