"Melancholy Survival as Depicted in Sherman Alexie’s 'The Long Ranger and Tonto: Fistfight
Last spring I had the pleasure of taking a class called Ethnic American Minority Literature. The books were excellent and here is a response I wrote on The Lone Ranger and Tonto: Fistfight in Heaven
Sherman Alexie reflects on life as an Indian in his short story collection, The Lone Ranger and Tonto: Fistfight in Heaven, with a theme of melancholy and sardonic survival. Sherman’s characters have little hope in their lives, but they seem to find a dark humor in how life treats them, savoring those rare and typically small victories. Alexie’s characters appear trapped in past glories or future hopes, mirroring Alexie’s take on the Indian experience.
Survival is a strong theme in Alexie’s stories. “Now, Indians fight their way to the end, holding onto the last good thing, because our whole lives have to do with survival” (32). Whether an Indian couple fights to the bitter end to save a failed relationship or an Indian fights to save himself from alcoholism while selflessly raising someone else’s child ("Jesus Christ's Half-Brother Is Alive and Well on the Spokane Indian Reservation"), Alexie’s stories capture the Indian experience of day-to-day survival.
With even day-to-day survival uncertain, Alexie’s characters look to past and future heroes for guidance on surviving. “And just like everybody else, Indians need heroes to help them learn how to survive. But what happens when our heroes don’t even know how to pay their bills?” (49). The loss of past basketball heroes like Julius Windmaker is hard to take. However, there is hope such as when Victor sees the third-grade girl who plays sixth grade boys basketball and says, “God, I hope she makes it all the way” (53). Alexie’s characters reflect the Indian experience of living in past glories or hoping for future ones because there is nothing to celebrate in the present.
Alexie explores the punishing effects of daily survival through his characters’ communal feeling of suffering. “When children grow up together in poverty, a bond is formed that is so stronger than anything. It’s this same bond that causes so much pain” (8). Indians relate to each other, especially in adversity.
However, communal suffering does not mean everyone on the reservation gets along in saintly paradise. Indians mock, fight, and even perform grave injustices to each other as seen when Thomas Builds-the-Fire is belittled and nearly beaten to death, Indians bully fellow Indian Victor in grade school, and a politically powerful tribal official railroads Thomas Builds-the-Fire into prison because Thomas talked the official’s wife into leaving him.
Still, optimism seems a troublesome choice for Alexie’s characters. Melancholy survival seems the best they can hope for as reflected in this passage:
It’s hard to be optimistic on the reservation. When a glass sits on a table here, people don’t wonder if it’s half filled or half empty. They just hope it’s good beer. Still, Indians have a way of surviving. But it’s almost like Indians can easily survive the big stuff. Mass murder, loss of language and land rights. It’s the small things that hurt the most. The white waitress who wouldn’t take an order, Tonto, the Washington Redskins (49).
Alexie’s characters suffer personal insults and injuries every day whether it’s people spitting on them while they wait for a bus, a school teacher accusing a child suffering from diabetes of being drunk “like Indians” in the story “Indian Education”, or cultural appropriation such as “Redskins”.
Alcohol is depicted as a refuge for many when the past seems distant and the future uncertain, a reality Alexie does not ignore to conform his stories to mainstream feelings. As Sherman notes in his introduction, he makes no apologies for his portrayal of alcohol use. “When I write about the destructive effects of alcohol on Indians, I am not writing out of a literary stance or a colonized mind’s need to reinforce stereotypes, I am writing autobiography” (xix). This ties in with class notes about Native literature having to deal with conforming to mainstream society. People who criticize Indians for their alcohol use and berate Wylie’s matter-of-fact depiction seem to ignore the reasons why Natives choose to numb themselves to past wrongs, current living conditions, and a hopeless future.
In the end, an Indian survives with a melancholy and sardonic nature, trapped in the present between a bleak past and uncertain future. This is summed up at the end of “Junior Polatkin’s Wild West Show” when Junior walks home, thinking, “He wanted to imagine that he was walking off into the sunset, into a happy ending. But he knew that all along the road he traveled, there were reservation drive-in’s, each showing a new and painful sequel to the first act of his life” (242). Life is more bitter than sweet but the Indian endures, experiencing a day-to-day, melancholy survival.
Alexie, Sherman. The Lone Ranger and Tonto: Fistfight in Heaven. Grove Press, 2005.