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Tuesday, March 3, 2015

Sherman Alexie

At a glance
The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven
by Sherman Alexie

223 pages, $$13

Sherman Alexie is many things.

He is a poet. He is a novelist. He is a screenwriter and movie director.

He is the most famous Indian ever to grow up on the Spokane Reservation.

He is someone who dismisses the term "Native American" as an expression of "liberal guilt."

He is a stand-up comedian who isn't afraid to depict Indians as drunks and mainstream America as racist.

He is a husband and a father, a son and a brother. (He is not gay, as some of his characters are, though he admits that at one gay and lesbian film festival he "got hit on by more men than I've ever been hit on by women.")

He has been referred to more than once as one of "America's best young writers" -- which more than justifies choosing the Seattle author's book "The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven" as the March selection of The Spokesman-Review Book Club.

All in all, Alexie boasts a fair list of accomplishments, especially for a guy not yet 37 years old. He typically attracts the kind of high critical praise that few artists of any kind enjoy.

Publisher's Weekly said that ``Alexie renews the nearly forgotten sense of language equaling power.''

According to the Philadelphia Inquirer, ``Alexie's vision is Whitmanic in all his embracing love of humanity.''

And the New York Times Book Review? ``Mr. Alexie's is one of the major lyrical voices of our time,'' its reviewer wrote.

Comments about ``The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven'' (HarperPerennial, 223 pages, $13) are no different.

``Irony, grim humor, and forgiveness help characters transcend pain, anger and loss while the same qualities make it possible to read Alexie's fiction without succumbing to hopelessness,'' said the literary journal Kirkus Reviews.

The fiction in question is a collection of 22 stories that reflects both a favorite Alexie style (magical realism) and attitude (humor mixed with pathos), not to mention subject: Indian life today, on the reservation and off.

Alexie sees that life from both sides: as beautiful as a fall-away jump shot hitting nothing but net, and as sad as empty pockets on payday.

The titles of the stories in the collection are almost as interesting as the stories themselves, ranging from something as complex as ``Jesus Christ's Half-Brother Is Alive and Well on the Spokane Indian Reservation'' to something as straightforward as ``Indian Education.''

But even though each story is complete unto itself, they're connected as well. Each one represents another facet of tribal life, seen through characters such as Lester FallsApart, James Many Horses and Thomas Builds-the-Fire (``a storyteller that nobody wanted to listen to'').

The focal point, though, is the ubiquitous Victor, whose early vision of life involves him, as a 9-year-old, equating family life to killer hurricanes. Later, as a young man, Victor travels with Thomas to Phoenix to claim the ashes of his dead father.

That story, ``This Is What It Means to Say Phoenix, Arizona,'' was the basis for the 1998 movie ``Smoke Signals.'' Written by Alexie and directed by Chris Eyre, it won the Audience Award and Filmmaker's Trophy at the Sundance Film Festival. (Last year Alexie used an earlier story-poem collection, ``The Business of Fancydancing,'' as the basis for a film of that same title that he both wrote and directed.)

While he's never afraid to tackle troubling subjects, Alexie's true talent resides in how he presents those subjects in a manner that can be challenging one minute, worthy of a smile the next. And beneath it all, he retains a poet's touch with language.

``The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven'' in particular contains a number of memorable lines.

From ``All I Wanted to Do Was Dance'': ``It happened that way. He thought one more beer could save the world. One more beer and every chair would be comfortable. One more beer and the light bulb in the bathroom would never burn out. One more beer and he would love her forever. One more beer and he would sign any treaty for her.''

From ``A Drug Called Tradition'': ``Your past is a skeleton walking one step behind you, and your future is a skeleton walking one step in front of you. Maybe you don't wear a watch, but your skeletons do, and they always know what time it is.''

From ``Every Little Hurricane'': ``Victor lay between his parents, his alcoholic and dreamless parents, his mother and father. Victor licked his index finger and raised it into the air to test the wind. Velocity. Direction. Sleep approaching. The people outside seemed so far away, so strange and imaginary. There was a downshift of emotion, tension seemed to wane. Victor put one hand on his mother's stomach and placed the other on his father's. There was enough hunger in both, enough movement, enough geography and history, enough of everything to destroy the reservation and leave only random debris and broken furniture.''

But one line from the story that would become the movie ``Smoke Signals'' applies best to Alexie the real-life writer, poet, novelist and storyeller: ``Thomas Builds-the-Fire told his stories to all those who would stop and listen. He kept telling them long after people had stopped listening.''

That hasn't yet happened to Sherman Alexie. People are still listening, people are still reading.

Hurricanes or not, maybe they always will.

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