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The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven

Sherman Alexie

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For Bob, Dick, Mark, and Ron

For Adrian, Joy, Leslie, Simon, and all those Native writers whose words and music have made mine possible

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Contents Prologue

Introduction Every Little Hurricane A Drug Called Tradition

Because My Father Always Said He Was the Only Indian Who Saw Jimi Hendrix Play “The Star-Spangled Banner” at

Woodstock Crazy Horse Dreams

The Only Traffic Signal on the Reservation Doesn’t Flash Red Anymore

Amusements This Is What It Means to Say Phoenix, Arizona

The Fun House All I Wanted to Do Was Dance

The Trial of Thomas Builds-the-Fire Distances

Jesus Christ’s Half-Brother Is Alive and Well on the Spokane Indian Reservation

A Train Is an Order of Occurrence Designed to Lead to Some Result

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A Good Story The First Annual All-Indian Horseshoe Pitch and Barbecue

Imagining the Reservation The Approximate Size of My Favorite Tumor

Indian Education The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven

Family Portrait Somebody Kept Saying Powwow

Witnesses, Secret and Not Flight

Junior Polatkin’s Wild West Show

A Biography of Sherman Alexie

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There’s a little bit of magic in everything and then some loss to even things out.

—Lou Reed

I listen to the gunfire we cannot hear, and begin this journey with the light of knowing

the root of my own furious love. —Joy Harjo

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Prologue An email exchange between Jess Walter and Sherman Alexie

From: Sherman Alexie 
 To: Jess Walter 
 Sent: Thursday, June 20
 Subject: Twentieth Anniversary Lone Ranger and Tonto

SA: So I’ve been trying to write the intro to the 20th anniversary edition, but it feels too self-congratulatory, so do you want to have an email exchange about it and use that as the intro?

JW: The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven is 20!?! Your email sent me scurrying to my signed copy. I looked at the jacket photo and there you are, with the greatest Breakfast Club pro-wrestling warrior mullet of all time.

SA: The rez mullet! I also find my former haircut amusing in stylistic terms. It’s embarrassing now. But there’s always been a conscious and subconscious classist/racist edge to mullet jokes, especially when it comes to white guys with mullets. If one means to tell a racist/classist joke, then make it a good one, but I

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don’t actually think that many folks realize the cultural importance of the mullet in Native American warrior history. Take a look at Chief Joseph.

Unravel those braids, my friend, and you’ve got a legendary mullet, comparable to mine. The contemporary motto for the mullet wearer is “business in front, party in the back,” but the Indian mullet warrior motto was “I don’t want my hair to get in my eyes as I’m kicking your ass.” The Indian mullet motto, coincidentally or not, is the same as the motto for hockey mullet wearers. Somebody needs to do a study …

Looking at my hair through a slightly more serious lens, I think I wore such an exaggerated mullet as a means of aggressively declaring my Indian identity. And my class identity. When The Lone Ranger was published, I was being fêted by the publishing world while I was back living on the rez, after college. I was called “one of the major lyric voices of our time” but at the same time I was sleeping in a U.S. Army surplus bed in the unfinished basement bedroom in my family’s government- built house.

The contrast between my literary life and my real life was epic. Scary. Even dangerous. And it felt epic, scary, and dangerous for many years.

My mullet was an insecurity shield. My mullet was an

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ethnic hatchet. My mullet was an arrow on fire. My mullet said to the literary world, “Hello, you privileged

prep-school assholes, I’m here to steal your thunder, lightning, and book sales.”

JW: Yes, undoubtedly: Chief Joseph’s business in front carries more power and meaning than say, Brian Bosworth’s. (My own unfortunate mullet included a braided rattail—just in case I wasn’t white trash enough.) And in your author photo from that time there is a fierce, steady engagement in your eyes that reflects exactly that quality in the book—you are drawn in by the humor, the sorrow, and the anger over injustice, the steady and unblinking cost of admission. I remember so clearly the reviews you were getting, and especially that phrase from the New York Times Book Review’s cover story on The Business of Fancydancing—“one of the major lyric voices of our time”—but I couldn’t have comprehended the pressure that such praise brings, especially the identity component of it, and so early in your writing life. To follow those reviews with a book like Lone Ranger, is, frankly, kind of fucking remarkable. The book won the PEN/Hemingway Award for best first fiction and garnered even more praise, but it must have felt like even more weight; every writer dreams of “stunning” and “dazzling,” but The

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Chicago Tribune writing, “The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven is for the American Indian what Richard Wright’s Native Son was for the black American in 1940.” What does a 26-year-old do with that?

The pressure of straddling two worlds comes through in Lone Ranger. In “A Good Story,” the gap is represented by the sweetest bit of postmodernist breaking of the fourth wall, in which you, the author, seem to be lying on the couch and your mother pleads with you to “write a story about something good.”

Another example of the disparate worlds you’ve suddenly found yourself straddling is one of my all-time-favorite stories, “The Trial of Thomas Builds-the-Fire,” which begins with a wonderfully apt epigraph from Kafka’s The Trial: “Someone must have been telling lies about Joseph K., for without having done anything wrong he was arrested one fine morning.” Your name, your boy’s name: Joseph. You almost seem to be staking out territory on the literary side of that divide, and having to defend yourself to both sides. That story also moves toward something I see in your work—a brotherhood in class, Thomas on the bus to prison with “four African men, one Chicano, and a white man from the smallest town in the state,” delivering them to “a new kind of reservation, barrio, ghetto, logging-town tin shack.”

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SA: And now I remember a New Yorker magazine party early in my career when I stepped out of a penthouse apartment elevator and saw Stephen King and Salman Rushdie hugging each other. What does a rez boy do with that visual information?

Oh boy, do I still feel like a class warrior in the literary world. In the whole world, really. These stories are drenched in poverty and helplessness.

We’ve talked about this a few times. I often make the joke that your trailer park poverty makes my rez poverty look good.

But that’s an overlooked part of these stories, I think. I grew up in the tribe called the Rural Poor, as did you, and I don’t think folks think of us that way. I grew up in wheat fields. I grew up climbing to the tops of pine trees. I grew up angry and ready to punch a rich guy in the ear.

So, yeah, realism is my thing in this book. Autobiography, too. Not an autobiography of details but an autobiography of the soul.

One thing: I wrote this book in the middle of a decade-long effort to believe in God. So it’s curious to see the uncynical God hunger in the boy I was.

JW: Oh man! That’s a little more high-powered hug than you and I hugging at the LA Times Book Festival in 1996. I still

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remember, you said, “What are you doing here?” Then you introduced me to Helen Fielding, of all people. “This is Jess Walter, the second-best writer from Stevens County, Washington.” And we both laughed, because you and I knew that I was the ONLY other writer from Stevens County, Washington.

To my shame now, I grew up embarrassed about being bluecollar, a first-generation college student, a 19-year-old father. We usually think of passing in terms of race, but people try to pass as another class, too. I did that.

You, however, seemed to know—at least as a writer—to claim class as a subject, that literature belongs to the poor shits, too. Your stories are sneaky that way: They confront readers on that level; there’s a quiet insistence that THIS WORLD is as rich a literary world as London or New York, that Benjamin Lake can be as profound a place as Walden Pond, that Tshimikain Creek can have every bit as much literary resonance as the Thames.

But place and class are only part of the story. Many people tell me that they had no picture of contemporary reservation life, or even urban Indian life, until reading The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven . To break Indians out of museums and movies and Chief Wahoo—that’s a legacy for any book. The book and Smoke Signals gave many their first picture of contemporary Native American life.

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Autobiography of the soul is a great phrase. I remember someone on the reservation telling me back when I covered the Spokane Tribe and your book came up, “You know what that book seemed like to me? The news.”

So, what do you make of people who have called your work “magical realism”? I wonder if there isn’t a cultural gap in that phrase, a whiff of colonialism. I’m a big García Márquez fan and reading his autobiography is not so much different than reading his fiction.

SA: Describing my book as “magical realism” does make me feel like a witch doctor in blue jeans. I’ve got a friend who calls me Shaman Perplexy. I like that. Isn’t all fiction (and nonfiction) magical realism? Aren’t we all making shit up, and if we do it well enough, it can feel surreal? Anyway, I’m not nearly as much of a magical realist as Flannery O’Connor.

What is your favorite story in the book?

JW: What feels surreal to me are those stories of kids growing up on the Upper East Side, going to summer camp, then prep school, then choosing between Harvard and Yale … sci-fi.

“Jesus Christ’s Half-Brother …” is a huge story, dreamy and plaintive. I’m not surprised to hear you were contemplating your faith as you worked on this book. I have a sentimental sweet "******ebook converter DEMO - www.ebook- converter.com*******"

spot for the stories about basketball, especially “Indian Education” and “The Only Traffic Signal on the Reservation Doesn’t Flash Red Anymore.” One of my favorite first lines is from “The First Annual All-Indian Horse Shoe Pitch and Barbecue”: “Somebody forgot the charcoal; blame the BIA.” But I think the story that moved me the most at the time was “This Is What it Means to Say Phoenix, Arizona.” When I went back to that story, I was amazed you accomplished all of that in 16 pages. That story was a novel in my mind.

Jess Walter is the author of eight books, including the bestseller Beautiful Ruins and The Zero, a finalist for the National Book Award. He grew up in Spokane and on a small ranch bordering the Spokane Reservation. He and Sherman Alexie have been friends for twenty years.

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Introduction IN FEBRUARY 1992 Hanging Loose Press of Brooklyn, New York, published my first book of poems and stories, The Business of Fancydancing, and I figured it would sell two hundred copies, one hundred and twenty-five of them purchased by my mother. After all, it was a first book by a twenty-six-year-old Spokane Reservation Indian boy from eastern Washington. There was a good chance it would only sell twenty-two copies, seventeen of them purchased by my mother, the formalist, who constantly asked me why my poems didn’t rhyme.

“It’s free verse,” I said. “And some of them do rhyme. I’ve written sonnets, sestinas, and villanelles. I’ve written in iambic pentameter.”

“What’s that?” “It’s the ba-bump, ba-bump sound of the heartbeat, of the

deer running through the green pine forest, of the eagle singing its way through the sky.”

“Don’t pull that Indian shaman crap on me,” my mother said.

So my mother certainly wasn’t impressed by my indigenous rhetoric, but she would have been deliriously happy if I’d

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become a messianic doctor or lawyer (or a doctor or lawyer with only a messiah complex) and saved the tribe. In a capitalistic sense, that’s what the tribe needed (and still needs). But I was a former premedicine major who couldn’t handle human anatomy, and I knew far too many lawyers, so I chose the third most lucrative pursuit: small-press poetry.

My family was surprised, but they weren’t disappointed. Since I was one of the few people from my tribe to ever go to college, I was already a success story. My mother worked a series of low-wage social-work jobs for the tribe, and my father was a randomly employed blue-collar alcoholic. I made more money delivering pizzas than they did while working far more important jobs. I might have been considered a black sheep if I’d come from a more financially successful family, but my literary ambitions made me a white sheep, albeit a lamb who published in tiny poetry magazines like The Black Bear Review, Giants Play Well in the Drizzle, Impetus, and Slipstream.

Don’t get me wrong. I was excited and proud to be a publishing poet (and still have copies of every journal where I’ve been published), but I also kept my day job as a program information coordinator (secretary) for People to People, a high school international-exchange program in Spokane. I knew that I would eventually return to college (I left three credits shy of my

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B.A. in American studies), get that degree, and then trudge through graduate school in creative writing. But I was in no hurry to do that. I just wanted to write my poems (and the occasional story) and live as cheaply as possible. I knew how to live in poverty, having grown up on an American third-world reservation, so my urban six-dollars-an-hour job was almost luxurious.

But a New York Times Book Review editor named Rich Nicholls changed my life when he noticed The Business of Fancydancing lying in an office slush pile. As he later told me, he thought the cover was extraordinarily beautiful—it featured a surreal photograph of a Navajo fancydancer that some readers wrongly assumed was my self-portrait—and that was the primary reason he picked it up and flipped through the pages. He assigned the book, as well as a few others as part of a survey of contemporary Native American literature, to James Kincaid, an English professor at the University of Southern California. My Hanging Loose editors were shocked to hear one of their books was being reviewed, because there are Pulitzer Prize–winning poets whose books don’t get covered in the Times. And more shocking, my book was part of a front-page review. Yep, right there on the cover of the Times Book Review was a photograph of some Indian guy on a motorcycle (I’m terrified of any vehicle

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with less than four wheels), and inside that review was Mr. Kincaid declaring me “one of the major lyric voices of our time.”

I was sitting at my desk at People to People when my Hanging Loose editor, Bob Hershon, faxed me an advance copy of the review. I read it once, ran to the bathroom to throw up, then returned to my desk to read one sentence again and again: “Mr. Alexie’s is one of the major lyric voices of our time.”

As Keanu Reeves, the Hawaiian balladeer, would say, “Whoa.”

I didn’t believe I was one of the major lyric voices of our time (though I’m probably in the top 503 by now), but I guessed that review was going to help my career. In fact, that review tossed my ass over the stadium fence directly into the big leagues. After Kincaid’s compliments went public, I started receiving phone calls from agents and editors. Many phone calls. Dozens of calls. A Hollywood producer interrogated me.

“Are the film rights available?” he asked. “Well, yeah,” I said. “But you know it’s a book of poems?” “What do you mean, a book of poems?” “I mean, poems, you know, with skinny lines, stanzas,

mostly free verse, but some rhyming stuff, too. My mom thinks they’re pretty cool.”

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“You mean poem poems?” “Yes.” “Do your poems tell a story?” “Most of them are narrative.” “That’s good, that’s good. Could you send me a copy of the

book?” “You haven’t read it?” “No,” he said. “But I read the review. The review was

great.” Dozens of agents and editors loved the review (though I

wonder how many of them had read the book), and they all wanted to know if I wrote fiction.

“Well,” I said to them. “It’s not just a book of poetry. There are four short stories in there, too. And a lot of prose poems.”

“But do you write fiction?” “I have a manuscript of short stories. There must be thirty

or forty stories in it.” “But do you write fiction?” I didn’t realize that “fiction” was a synonym for “Sure,

we’ll publish your book of obscure short stories as long as we can also publish your slightly less obscure first novel as part of a two-book deal.”

I was terrified by all of these big-time agents and editors,

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and especially of one particular agent, who enjoyed more fame and fortune than any of her clients did.

“Send me the manuscript today,” the famous agent ordered. Bullied, terrified, and naive, I sent her my manuscript of

short stories, glacially printed out by a five-hundred-dollar Brother word processor.

“You’re not ready,” she said after she’d read them. “I’ll take you on as a client, but we’re going to have to work on these stories for a year or two before I send them out to publishers.”

I was shocked. I had been dreaming about immediate fame and fortune.

“But wait,” I said. “I thought I was one of the major lyric voices of our time.”

“According to the manuscript I’ve got sitting in front of me, you’re not even one of the major lyric voices on my desk.”

Ouch. That one really hurt. And this woman wanted to be my agent? Was that how agents were supposed to talk to their clients? And who the hell was I, calling myself one of the major lyric voices of our time? I was wondering if I should get business cards that identified me as such, or perhaps leave it on my answering machine.

Hello, you’ve reached Sherman Alexie, one of the major lyric voices of our time. Please leave a message if you’re not too

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intimidated and I’ll get back to you, with my versatile and mellifluous voice, as soon as possible.

Of course, these days my wife, Diane, only refers to me as “one of the major lyric voices of our time” when I stutter or mispronounce a word or say something so inane and arrogant that it defies logic. A few years ago, as we argued about the potential danger in using a cracked coffeepot, I shouted, “You can’t heat cracked glass! It will shatter! I majored in chemistry! I know glass! What do you know about glass?”

Yep, I have just offered you scientific proof of the majorness of my voice.

“But the thing is,” I said to the famous agent. “I think my stories are pretty good. And I hate to be repetitive, but they said I’m one of the major lyric voices of our time.”

“These stories are not major. But you’ve got potential. I’m a great editor. If we take it slow, we can make this book the best it can be.”

“I don’t know,” I said. “I was hoping things would go much faster.”

“Going fast would be a mistake for you.” “I don’t want to go slow. I can’t afford to go slow.” “Then we won’t be working together. Call me if you change

your mind.”

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She hung up without saying good-bye. I’d always heard of people who hung up without saying good-bye. I’d seen them on television and in movies, but I’d never talked to somebody who hung up without saying good-bye. She remains the only person I know who has ever hung up on me without saying good-bye.

I still owe her a phone call. I would love to call her up and say, “Well, Miss Fifteen

Percent, we published this book at the speed of the light, and it’s now in its 1,220,342nd printing, and it was the basis for a really cool movie called Smoke Signals. Maybe you’ve heard of the movie? It was released by Miramax, yes, Miramax, that’s spelled M-I-R-A-M-A-X, and the movie won the Audience Award and the Filmmakers’ Trophy at the Sundance Film Festival in 1998. Yes, that’s Robert Freaking Redford’s Sundance Film Festival! And I’ve published one million books since that first one, and I’ve hugged Stephen King and been kissed on the cheek by Ally Sheedy and sat in a big couch in Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s living room while my feet dangled off the floor, so perhaps you were wrong about EVERYTHING! And by the way, what do you know about glass?”

As they say, revenge is a dish best served with the introduction to the tenth-anniversary edition of a book of short stories.

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Eventually, despite my narcissism and naïveté, and thanks to the recommendations of friends, I met the agent Nancy Stauffer Cahoon, who, after reading my manuscript, said something beautiful and surprising.

“That story, ‘Flight,’ the one about the kid and the jet,” she said. “That reminds me of James Tate’s poem ‘The Lost Pilot.’”

“Wow,” I said, falling in literary love. “That story was directly influenced by that poem. Nobody has ever noticed that.”

“You had me at hello,” Renée Zellweger said to Tom Cruise.

“You had me at James Tate,” I said to Nancy. Okay, I didn’t really say that to her. But I was impressed

that she talked to me first in artistic terms and only later in financial terms. I hired her immediately (or does the agent hire the writer?), worked with her to edit the manuscript, and immediately cut “Flight” and a dozen other stories. As a sentimental gesture, I’ve added “Flight” and “Junior Polatkin’s Wild West Show” to this edition. I think we deleted “Flight” from the original book because it sounds more like children’s literature and “Junior Polatkin’s Wild West Show” because it contains themes more adroitly covered in other stories. Read them for yourself and decide whether we should have kept them.

After Nancy and I got the manuscript into shape, we sent it

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to twelve or fifteen publishers and set up an auction date. I was going to be auctioned as a literate steer! On a Friday in January 1993, six or eight publishers joined the bidding. During the auction, I updated Bob Hershon, my Hanging Loose god, and Diane, my new girlfriend (and now wife). By the end of the day, Morgan Entrekin and Atlantic Monthly Press had won the auction; then published the book in September 1993. During the twenty-seven-city book tour that followed, I worked with and became friends with, and owe many thanks to, Morgan, Judy Hottensen, Miwa Messer, and Eric Price, my original Dream Team at Grove.

Grove won that original auction with an amount of cash that absolutely boggled my mind. My parents hadn’t made that much money in the last ten years combined. I ran outside, jumped into a snowbank, and made angels.

I was rich, rich, rich. Okay, to be more accurate, I was middle-class, middle-class, middle-class. But that was a huge leap. I was the first Alexie to ever become middle-class and all because I wrote stories and poems about being a poor Indian growing up in an alcoholic family on an alcoholic reservation.

This book could have easily been titled The Lone Ranger and Tonto Get Drunk, Fistfight, and Then Fall into Each Other’s Arms and Confess Their Undying Platonic Love for Each Other

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in Heaven Followed by a Long Evening of Hot Dog Regurgitation and Public Urination.

When the book was first published, I was (and continue to be) vilified in certain circles for my alcohol-soaked stories. Rereading them, I suppose my critics have a point. Everybody in this book is drunk or in love with a drunk. And in writing about drunk Indians, I am dealing with stereotypical material. But I can only respond with the truth. In my family, counting parents, siblings, and dozens of aunts, uncles, and cousins, there are less than a dozen who are currently sober, and only a few who have never drank. 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.

When this book was first reviewed, people often commented on its autobiographical nature, and that always pissed me off.

“You see the description on the book,” I would say. “It says ‘Fiction.’ That’s what this book is.”

Of course, I was full of shit. This book is a thinly disguised memoir. I was a child at the crazy New Year’s Eve party depicted in “Every Little Hurricane.” My mother did punch another woman in the face during that party. My father and