- Learning from The Lone Ranger
Though it will come as a surprise to many, my favorite short story collection after all this time is still Sherman Alexie's The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven (1993). When I decided to write this, I had fully come to understand the import of what the author had given to me. Even though the book had been so fundamental to my development as a writer, I decided I would not teach his book again, not until he is gone—he was not allowed to take that beauty from me. My history, and it is the history of so many female writers, is intertwined with his. Lone Ranger doesn't have the crisp brutality and poetry of Diaz's Drown (1996) (yet another writer whose behavior has come to light), nor the impeccable polish of Lahiri's Interpreter of Maladies (1999). But there are stories that you can't get over, that are exploding with beauty, stories that haunt me and have for twenty years. Set in urban areas and on the reservation, The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven is a brilliant, gritty collection of short stories that was originally based on a dream of Alexie's, during a time in his early twenties when he was a heavy, heavy drinker.
Let's look at one of my favorite stories from this collection, "Jesus Christ's Half-Brother is Alive and Well on the Spokane Indian Reservation." Just the title alone is a poem. It's about a baby who is really the narrator who is really the author who was born with a defect (he clues us in on this the by telling us that the baby was born in 1966—the year of Alexie's birth). The narrator is trying to take care of the baby, but he's failing. Here's a selection from this story, which formally could easily be called experimental, though I rarely hear that word when Alexie is spoken about.
Jesse WildShoe died last night and today was the funeral and usually there's a wake…we buried Jesse right away and dug the hole deep because Jesse could fancy dance like God had touched his feet…I don't know anything about religion and I don't confess my sins to anybody except the walls and the wood stove and James who forgives everything like a rock…One night I get so drunk I leave him at somebody's house and forget all about him…The tribal police drag me into the cell for abandonment and I'm asking them who they're going to arrest for abandoning me…I've got the DTs so bad…my shoes squeal and kick and pull me down into the dead pig pit of my imagination. Oh Jesus I wake up on the bottom of that mass grave with the bones of generations of slaughter…like the heroin addict said I just want to be pure.
I don't mean to make a tragic hero out of a cold predator, but everyone who reads this can understand these lines the way that I have for years and years. That's the thing about Alexie: he's capable of such brilliance and pain and tremendous cruelty. This story is a killer, and there are enough of them in this collection to make the whole thing sing. Parts of it are funny, but I like the pieces that are strange, that do too much, that look and sound a bit like poetry, where he started. This collection, for whatever that has meant for me as a writer, is where it started for me, where I realized that all I had to do was write poetically and imaginatively about my world, whether that's about growing up urban and Indian outside of Denver, or about aliens. I'll always be grateful to this collection for singing to me at exactly at the right time, and now I can finally rest with the words without anything else crowding in. [End Page 14]
Erika T. Wurth's published works include a novel, Crazy Horse...