I have a love/hate relationship with Sherman Alexie. I adore him because of the talent he possesses. I cringe when I pick up any of his writings because I know I’m about to get punched in the gut. The Long Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven is no exception.
Sherman Alexie has a way of storytelling that makes the reader feel as though he/she is in the midst of the situation. He uses matter-of-fact language when describing circumstances that are based on his real life experiences. The tone he sets in his various stories does a good job at conveying the lot of American Indians.
This is especially seen in “That is what it Means to Say Phoenix, Arizona.” Victor does not have the money for a plane ticket to Arizona. He is travelling there because his deceased father has a savings account to be claimed. His former friend, Thomas-Builds-the-Fire, offers to lend him the money if Victor will take him along. They arrive to find the trailer, reeking from having contained his father’s dead body for over a week in the Arizona sun. Alexie describes the situation in an almost detached narrative voice that, surprisingly, actually lends more emotion to the story.
Alexie is also proficient at telling sad stories from his community with the absence of a whiny voice. Readers especially notice this when reading, “The Only Traffic Signal on the Reservation Doesn’t Flash Red Anymore.” Alexie sets the stage as he does so frequently and skillfully and the reader is swept up in the story of Julius, a young boy playing basketball on the reservation. Through the voice of Victor, Alexie recounts Julius and his eventual downfall after he gets involved with alcohol. This is a particular strength of Alexie’s; he is able to use his pieces of literature to send the message about the destructive properties of alcohol without appearing preachy or judgmental. Alexie refers to Julius as being a figure of hope for the people on the reservation; Julius was a talented basketball player and wanted to go to college. People thought he could make it, but then he got involved with drinking. He describes it as a huge hurt and disappointment to everyone on the reservation, but no one is surprised because that is what they expect to happen.
That is perhaps the saddest aspect of Alexie and his writings: there is a cycle of helplessness in which the characters find themselves. In “Every Little Hurricane,” Victor recounts how his father was spit on at a bus stop, his mother was forcibly sterilized after he was born, and how his uncles had stashed crackers in their bedroom as children so they could have something to eat. He remembers his father crying on Christmas Eve because there wasn’t any money for presents. He frequently mentions how people on the reservation are stuck in a cycle of drinking and poverty and while some are apathetic about changing, others simply don’t know how. It is all they and the generations before them have known.
One thing to note about many of Alexie’s short stories is that he likes to have his characters regularly employ colorful language. Call me old fashioned, but this bothers me. While it can be argued that explicit language can be appropriate and useful depending on the character or situation, Alexie’s heavy and frequent use of extremely offensive words is a bit over the top. So many instances of vulgar language take away from the other language Alexie uses that is incredibly descriptive and actually cheapens his stories. It distracts from the message he is trying to send in telling them. His stories could be just as (if not more) powerful if the frequency of those words was reduced.