Alexie's collection of linked short stories is a tale of life on an Indian reservation; it is an exploration of the ways in which Indians deal with th...moreAlexie's collection of linked short stories is a tale of life on an Indian reservation; it is an exploration of the ways in which Indians deal with the pains and the joys of their lives (storytelling, dance, basketball, food, alcohol); it is a reflection on the relationship between past, present, and future; and it is a meditation on storytelling as a means of bearing witness and as a means of creation and change.
The first story of the collection, "Every Little Hurricane," introduces both the functions of storytelling and the interconnectedness of pain and joy. Told from the perspective of a nine-year-old boy, "Every Little Hurricane" describes a scene at a party in which the young protagonist watches his uncles fight in the yard: "He could see his uncles slugging each other with such force that they had to be in love. Strangers would never want to hurt each other that badly" (2). Immediately, we are shown this connection between hate and love, between the "specific and beautiful" and the "dangerous and random" (5). The young boy, Victor, does not really take part in the action of the story, however. He is merely a witness: "They were all witnesses and nothing more. For hundreds of years, Indians were witnesses to crimes of an epic scale" (3).
The second story, "A Drug Called Tradition," takes up the question of time. Three young Indian men try a new drug together, one that gives them visions of a glorious past (horse stealing, music, dance), only to be warned in the end against the seductive appeal of this past as Thomas tells them "not to slow dance with [their] skeletons" (21). This is explained further: "Your past is a skeleton walking one step behind you, and your future is a skeleton walking one step in front of you" (21) Sometimes these skeletons can trap you or they may try to tempt you, but "what you have to do is keep moving, keep walking, in step with your skeletons. . . . [and] no matter what they do, keep walking, keep moving. And don't wear a watch. Hell, Indians never need to wear a watch because your skeletons will always remind you about the time. See, it is always now. That's what Indian time is. The past, the future, all of it is wrapped up in the now. That's how it is. We are trapped in the now" (22). The past, tradition, can be glorious, Thomas warns the young men, but looking only backward is dangerous; similarly, looking only forward to a potential future is dangerous. Both are dangerous because they prevent a clear vision and an actual experience of the actual, present, real world.
In "Imagining the Reservation," Alexie presents a formula that is key to the entire book. He writes, "Survival = Anger X Imagination. Imagination is the only weapon on the reservation" (150). He notes the limitations of imagination, asking, "Does every Indian depend on Hollywood for a twentieth-century vision?" (151) and "How can we imagine a new language when the language of the enemy keeps our dismembered tongues tied to his belt? How can we imagine a new alphabet when the old jumps off billboards down into our stomachs?" (152). But he also ends the story with a call for more imagination, for imagination that has concrete results:
"There are so many possibilities in the reservation, 7-11, so many methods of survival. Imagine every Skin on the reservation is the new lead guitarist for the Rolling Stones, on the cover of a rock-and-roll magazine. Imagine forgiveness is sold 2 for 1. Imagine every Indian is a video game with braids. Do you believe laughter can save us? All I know is that I count coyotes to help me sleep. Didn't you know? Imagination is the politics of dreams; imagination turns every word into a bottle rocket. Adrian, imagine every day is Independence Day and save us from traveling the river changed; save us from hitchhiking the long road home. Imagine an escape. Imagine that your own shadow on the wall is a perfect door. Imagine a song stronger than penicillin. Imagine a spring with water that mends broken bones. Imagine a drum which wraps itself around your heart. Imagine a story that puts wood in the fireplace." (152-3)
The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fist Fight in Heaven is a book that is not without hope, but it is a hope that is thoroughly aware of what has lost that cannot be regained and of what losses may be sustained in the future. It is a hope that dares not look into the future at the expense of the present or the past. Alexie writes in the final story, "Witnesses, Secret and Not," that "sometimes it seems like all Indians can do is talk about the disappeared" (222), asking "at what point do we just re-create the people who have disappeared from our lives?" (222). At what point is the storytelling and the memory a new creation and what is the cost of this memory and this creation? Imagination--the key component of both this kind of memory and of storytelling--he seems to say, is both a burden and a tool. (less)