Sherman Alexie Questions Native Americans Circle of Hopelessness
In the novel The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven Sherman Alexie shows you real life on an Indian reservation, warts and all. In his breakthrough novel Alexie asks many questions about the lives of the Native American population. Everyone is flawed in some way and Alexie picks at the scabs to unveil his disappointment in their shortcomings. Alexie questions everything about Native life with tragically beautiful stories about alcohol, apathy and hopelessness in the Native American community.
The natives in the book deal with their tragedies and their triumphs in the same manner soaked in alcohol. Nearly every story ends up in the bar. Alexi writes about the effects of alcoholism on the insignificant lives of the people on the reservation and the children who will repeat this life over and over again in new skin with a new generation. Parents and friends in the novel seem to let down their children and more often than not alcohol plays a role. In Jesus Christ’s Half-Brother Is Alive and Well on the Spokane Indian Reservation the narrator inherits a child after a fire. It does not take long for the new father to go back to his hard drinking ways. “All the drunks happy to see me drunk again and back from the wagon” (117). He abandons most attempts to better himself or his child’s world. Even though he understands what he needs to do to make his life better he chooses alcoholism. After leaving his son, and forgetting where, he is arrested and the police officer tells him he has been drunk “most of the year” (123). The escapism of books in the library were a draw but not as much of a draw as alcohol. “Books and beer are the best and worst defense” (122). In The Only Traffic Signal On the Reservation Doesn’t Flash Red Anymore two friends sit around and wait for the fifteen-year-old basketball star to let them all down, which he does. “Not even two in the afternoon and he’s drunk as a skunk” (50). On the reservation heroes are often very young because they have not had time to find alcohol yet. As much as we want the people in these stories to triumph unfortunately they seem doomed from the time they are children. Adrian says, “Ain’t no children on a reservation” (50). All too often alcohol gets them before they can get away. The disappointment people feel is filled up with hopes of a new basketball star, in this case a third grade girl named Lucy “who already had a nice move or two “ (51). In Indian Education the narrator talks about his education and his former classmates who graduate and look forward to the parties. The expectation that alcoholism will usurp all of their dreams is summarized in the quote where Victor says “Why should we organize a reservation high school reunion? My graduating class has a reunion every weekend at the Powwow Tavern” (180).
Alexie uses humor and imagination to showcase the characters in the best light yet his amused tolerance masks his deep resentment of the apathy of his people. Alexi writes about the native’s strong sense of community and their determination to persevere, but not better themselves. He often tells stories where empowered Indians take over the world and the white man suffers as a consequence, but all of these are fantasies in his head. The reality is the Indians never really fight back and try to help themselves. There are no live heroes, nobody is trying to better themselves and he masks his shame and disappointment in his tribe with dark humor and fantasy. Thomas Builds the Fire is a natural born storyteller yet no one likes or respects him and few people want hear anything he has to say. Violence and apathy were never more ugly than when Victor beats up Thomas Builds the Fire for no apparent reason in This Is What It Means to Say Phoenix Arizona, “All the other Indian boys stood around and watched it happen” (65). Victor was ashamed because he realized there were no tribal ties or a sense of community and “the only real thing he shared with anybody was a bottle and broken dreams “(74). Alexie has chronic cynicism about the condition of the inhabitants of the reservation. He is openly antagonistic to the history of white injustice that has been heaped on native populations for decades, but is also angry at the level of apathy in the natives for taking it. Imagination is the only weapon on the reservation. In the story Imagining the Reservation a character named Adrian wants “to rasp into sober cryptology and say something dynamic but tonight is my laundry night” (152). People on the reservation make thousands of excuses every day and Alexie points a bright spotlight on the ridiculous nature of doing nothing and expecting new results.
Alexie writes about self-awareness with dark humor, anger and disappointment and a sense of hopelessness because nothing is ever overcome by the end of the story. Samuel Builds-the-Fire is unique on the reservation because he managed to avoid drinking all his life. When he finally does have his first drink he begins “to understand too much about fear and failure” (134) and a few beers later Samuel “realizes he cannot turn back toward tradition and that he has no map to guide him toward the future” (134). He did everything “right” in his life. He did not drink, worked hard and still he ends up alone and dead. Alexie in this story points to the hopelessness of even bothering to try to better your life. There are heroes in the stories, but they are all from the past, long dead. Crazy horse is mentioned over and over again. In all the stories people imagine they are Crazy Horse but they can only imagine because there is nobody to look up to alive today that is native. “Imagine crazy horse detonated the atom bomb” (149), “Somehow she was still waiting for Crazy Horse” (40), and “He wished he was Crazy Horse” (42). Fantasy segments in the book fill in for lost heroes. Because there are no real heroes Alexie makes some up. In All I Wanted to Do Was Dance Victor wanders through his life mindlessly. Sometimes he worked and on payday “he would stand in front of the beer cooler in the Trading post” (89). Alexi paints an ugly picture of a young man who has already given up. Every day he makes plans, and every day he does nothing about them. After failing to start a new workout regime he adds vodka to his morning coffee saying, “Nothing more hopeless than a sober Indian” (87).
Nothing seems to change in their lives over many generations. The inhabitants of the reservation live in poverty and squalor, their lives filled with alcohol, violence and apathy. Critic Roland Barth’s quote “literature is the question minus the answer” perfectly illustrates Sherman Alexi’s writing because all he asks are hard questions. Alcohol and hopelessness and apathy are an ugly circle that no one seems to have the answer for, including Sherman Alexie. In a PBS interview in 2002 he was asked “What are your visionary ideas for solving the struggles you work on?” Alexie answered “I have no answers. I only hope I’m asking the right questions.”
Alexie, Sherman. The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven. New York: Grove, 1993. Print.
Alexie, Sherman. “PBS Border Talk with Sherman Alexie.” PBS Border Talk. PBS, 12 Nov. 2002. Web. 21 Dec. 2015.