Sherman Alexie's book, The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven: "Every Little Hurricane," "What It Means To Say Phoenix, Arizona," and "The Trial of Thomas Builds-the-Fire." The focus is on the writing style of these stories, specifically, on the literal and metaphorical imagery, the interweaving of the human and the natural, and the shifting back and forth from reality to fantasy.
Through his use of Alexie manages to create a hypnotic story-telling mode that draws readers into the world of the Spokane Indian Reservation in which the stories are set. He uses descriptions with meticulous attention to word choice: no word is wasted. The literal is also metaphorical. The world of human interaction is contrasted against the natural world in which it is set. Finally, the borders between reality and fantasy become increasing blurred. This is particularly true by the time we get to the third story discussed here, "The Trial of Thomas Builds-the-Fire."
"Every Little Hurricane"
Sherman Alexie's story, "Every Little Hurricane," tells the story of a hurricane that hits the Spokane Indian Reservation where nine-year-old Victor lives in HUD housing. The year is 1976, it is New Year's Eve, and his mother and father are hosting a party when the hurricane hits. As a storm rages outside, another storm rages within as family members begin to fight. The two Indians are Adolph and Arnold, Victor's uncles. Alexie describes the fight: "The two Indians raged across the room at each other. One was tall and heavy, the other was short, muscular. High-pressure and low-pressure fronts" (2). Here we have the literal and the metaphorical juxtaposed side by side: there is a storm, literally, raging outside. There is also another storm, a physical one, brewing between Victor's two uncles as they struggle against each other. The "high-pressure and low-pressure fronts" here exist on a literal plane, clearly, but also on a metaphorical level. There is a sense of the constant pressure between two clashing ways of life, the old, Indian traditions that exist alongside the more modern intrusion of American culture which threatens to make it obsolete. Here in the first story, this literal and metaphorical theme is introduced, and will be repeated in subsequent stories throughout the book.
There is also the sense of couples who struggle against each other literally even as they struggle with one another against the world on a deeper metaphorical level: "He [Victor] 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). Here we see Adolph and Arnold, who are brothers, part of a family and part of a tribe who will stand up for and support one another, but who will also fight each other with the ferocity that can only come of strong emotion. Another couple we see in this story is Victor's parents, who have a similar relationship. Again, it is clear that these struggles exist on both a literal plane and on a metaphorical one: the constant tension of strong emotional ties is manifested in physical altercations between the characters in life on the reservation. This is symbolic of the metaphorical struggle which goes on between the old way of life and the new way of life, which have historically been at war with one another even as they exist side by side.
There is a sense of unreality in the rituals performed by the characters in this story. For example, the narrator describes how Victor once watched his father checking his wallet for money, again and again, as if somehow the act of re-checking the wallet would suddenly, magically, make money appear. "Victor watched his father repeat this ceremony again and again, as if the repetition itself could guarantee change. But it was always empty" (5). There is a sense of helplessness and being trapped in these words and in these actions, because on the level of reality, nothing will be changed by Victor's father's useless attempts to keep looking into his wallet. Yet, the fact that he continues to do so reflects the fantasy world that these characters also exist in. As Tracey Matthews describes it, Alexie "depicts the lives of Native Americans who attempt to escape their situation through alcohol and other forms of self-abuse." However, he also "finds a mental, emotional, and spiritual outlet in his writing, which he refers to as 'fancydancing'" (Matthews 2006).
As the storm subsides, the inner world of Alexie's characters begins to shift as well. There is a sense of unreality juxtaposed against the real world of the physical storm, as characters are immersed in memories. Each of these memories is bitter, as if to reflect the bitter aftermath of the hurricane. Victor's father remembers when his own father was spat on. His mother remembers involuntary sterilization. His uncles have numerous memories of battles and storms. Various other Indians have memories as well, and the pain of these collective memories is intermixed with what is going on with the real world of the abating storm. As Galens (2003) points out, "In postmodern writing such as Alexie's, the lines between fiction and fantasy, reality and dream are erased, and the storyline -- if there is one -- is often blurred" (2003).
As the opening story of the volume The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fist Right in Heaven, this story sets the tone for the book. It also introduces the volatile nature of close relationships between members of the tribe. These, in turn, mirror the relationships found in the natural world, which also appear in these stories and throughout the book. As Theresa Anderson comments, "this short story gives us our first vision of the reservation and its inhabitants, and does a fairly accurate foreshadowing of the connectivity of the collection."
"This Is What It Means to Say Phoenix, Arizona"
At the beginning of this story we once again see Victor, this time as a grown man who has learned his father has died. Here, too, we see the way the world exists on two levels, the literal world of physical pain, and the metaphorical world of inner pain. Victor feels emotional pain at the death of this father, but there will be physical pain too: "…there still was a genetic pain, which was soon to be pain as real and immediate as a broken bone" (59).
Once the character of Thomas Builds-the-Fire is reintroduced, the story begins to shift back and forth from the past to the present, from unreality to reality. Victor himself does not know what is real and what is unreal, because Thomas has the ability to "know" things that are real even before they come into existence. This is in keeping with Galens's concept of the intermix and blend of fiction and reality: with the character of Thomas-Builds-the-Fire, it is nearly impossible to know what is real and what is imagined. At times, the border becomes too blurred to distinguish between the two.
Towards the end of the story, after the trip to retrieve what is left of Victor's father is completed, Thomas says to Victor, "We are all given one thing by which our lives are measured, one determination. Mine are the stories which can change or not change the world. It doesn't matter which as long as I continue to tell the stories" (72-3). This is an important theme: the importance of stories in our lives. They are our history, and they are powerful. Alexie has a clear message about the power of storytelling here. Are our stories "real" or "metaphorical"? How can we tell the difference? And more significantly, does the difference really matter? In the stories we tell each other and the stories we tell ourselves, the stories we pass on to new generations to keep our legacy alive: "I learned a thousand stories before I took my first thousand steps. They are all I have. It's all I can do" Thomas Builds-the-Fire tells Victor (73).Victor briefly considers what is lost when we stop listening to one another, as we see in this moment of introspection: "Whatever happened to the tribal ties, the sense of community?" (74). But the moment of introspection passes, and the story goes on.
Yet there is one small hope at the end, that at some point a story will be told and it will be listened to and valued. Victor and Thomas make a pact on it. "Just one time when I'm telling a story somewhere, why don't you stop and listen?" Thomas asks Victor (75). Reluctantly, Victor agrees, asking "Just once?" And again, we hear repetition in Thomas's response: "Just once." Scholar Jerome DeNuccio explains the importance of the story-telling that goes on between Victor and Thomas in this story: "Thomas challenges Victor's belief that he can sweep his father from memory, abandon the father, who abandoned him. Thomas's story inserts Victor's father in a process-laden narrative that assigns cultural significance to a father whom Victor…