Hoops, Booze, and Commodity Cheese: Stories by Sherman Alexie

lone ranger

I got this book from the most recent Hattiesburg Book Exchange — clearly, someone had to read this for school and, once they were done with it, they donated it. Thanks for sharing! I enjoyed this book quite a bit.

The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven is a collection of short stories that are interconnected, but can stand on their own. I really like that sort of format. The stories are about life on the Spokane Indian Reservation

If I had to pick a favorite, I’d be hard pressed to choose between “The Trial of Thomas Builds-the-Fire” and “Jesus Christ’s Half-Brother is Alive and Well on the Spokane Indian Reservation,” though there are many memorable stories here.

Builds-the-Fire is a character that definitely caught my eye. Even when he is a boy, he tells stories to the point that nobody wants to hear them anymore. “The Trial” illustrates his character beautifully, powerfully — after his stories get him into trouble with the powers that be, he stays silent for two decades, but then, begins “to make small noises, form syllables that contained more emotion and meaning than entire sentences constructed by the BIA” (94). The BIA (Bureau of Indian Affairs) is a recurring character in all these stories. They are worried because Builds-the-Fire is powerful, even when he only says a single word:

A noise that sounded something like rain had given Esther courage enough to leave her husband, tribal chairman David WalksAlong, who had been tribal police chief at the time of Thomas Builds-the-Fire’s original crime […] She packed her bags the day after she listened to Thomas speak; Thomas was arrested the day after Esther left. (94)

WalksAlong wants to get rid of Builds-the-Fire, and so do the men at the BIA. Since the one way to get rid of him for sure is a felony charge, they determine to have him convicted of murder. Builds-the-Fire is never even told what he is accused of, a fact that the traveling judge blatantly ignores, even when the defendant points it out during the trial. When asked to “tell the truth,” Builds-the-Fire does tell the truth — the Truth, with a capital T — in three stories.

First, he claims to be “a young pony, strong and quick in every movement” (96) and that he had to witness the slaughter of nearly 800 of his brothers / fellow-ponies by Colonel Wright in 1858. He describes this much like a genocide, which he was lucky enough to escape.

The second part of his testimony is that he was a warrior named Qualchan who was tricked and hanged by Colonel Wright. There is some unrest in the court room when Builds-the-Fire explains that “The City of Spokane is now building a golf course named after me, Qualchan, located in that valley where I was hanged” (99).

image from Museum of Modern Mythology & Pop Culture (click for link)

image from Museum of Modern Mythology & Pop Culture (click for link)

Finally, the prosecutor’s attorney questions Builds-the-Fire. His question is both absurd and calculated, and the defendant plays right into his hands. “Where were you on May 16, 1858?” is a ridiculous question because the story is set some time in the past four decades or so (i.e. a century later).

Builds-the-Fire responds with another story: “My name was Wild Coyote and I was just sixteen years old and frightened because this was to be my first battle” (100). He goes on to declare “I killed one soldier right out with an arrow to the chest. He fell off his horse and didn’t move again. I shot another and he fell off his horse, too, and I ran over to him to take his scalp but he pulled his revolver and shot me through the shoulder. I still have the scar. It hurt so much that I left the soldier and went away to die. I really thought I was going to die” (101).

The prosecutor now has him just where he wants him: “‘Did you or did you not murder those two soldiers in cold blood and with premeditation?’ ‘I did.'” Once he is convicted of racially motivated murder, Builds-the-Fire is sentenced to life in prison and sent off to a prison outside the reservation.

The other favorite I mentioned is “Jesus Christ’s Half-Brother is Alive and Well on the Spokane Indian Reservation.” It’s written in sections titled with the year, like diary entries, but without actual dates. The story begins in 1966, when Rosemary MorningDove delivers a baby boy everyone calls James (because his given name is “unpronounceable”). The next year, her house catches on fire. Frank Many Horses, who says he is the boy’s father, runs in to save the child:

I see Frank leaning out the upstairs window holding James and they’re both a little on fire and Frank throws James out the window and I’m running my ass over to catch him before he hits the ground making like a high school football hero again but I miss him just barely slipping through my fingers and James hits the ground hard and I pick him up right away and slap the flames out with my hands all the while expecting James to be dead but he’s just looking at me almost normal except the top of his head looks all dented in like a beer can. He wasn’t crying. (112)

The speaker is told he needs to raise the boy, now that James is an orphan, because he saved James’ life, so he takes him home. The baby boy is eerily quiet, never cries or talks or tries to walk. The speaker takes care of the child as best as he can. In one of the entries titled “1968” he explains: “I change his clothes and his dirty pants and I wash his face and the crevices of his little body until he shines like a new check. This is my religion” (114).

Basketball plays a central role in the lives of many of the Indian boys (and men) in these stories. James’ adoptive father is no exception:

I set James down in the shade by the basketball court and I play and I play until the sweat of my body makes it rain everywhere on the reservation. I play and I play until the music of my shoes against the pavement sounds like every drum. […] I hold James with one arm and my basketball with the other arm and I hold everything else inside my whole body. (115-6)

commodity cheese, also known as

commodity cheese, also known as “government cheese”

He is passionate about the boy, and in 1970, when he is told, again, that the child may just be ‘slow’ he cannot hold it in any longer:

Jesus I say don’t you know that James wants to dance and to sing and to pound a drum so hard it hurts your ears and he ain’t ever going to drop an eagle feather and he’s always going to be respectful to elders at least the Indian elders and he’s going to change the world. He’s going to dynamite Mount Rushmore or hijack a plane and make it land on the reservation highway. He’s going to be a father and a mother and a son and a daughter and a dog that will pull you from a raging river. He’ll make gold out of commodity cheese. (120)

James stays silent until he is nearly seven years old. When he finally does speak, it’s not just a few simple words and phrases you’d expect from a child trying out language for the first time; James has a lot on his mind: “[He] says he and I don’t have the right to die for each other and that we should be living for each other instead […] He tell s me to get a job and grow my braids […] He says to open a fireworks stand” (128).

Seeing that James at first didn’t breathe when he was born, and then sustained a major brain trauma as an infant, this sudden outpouring of ideas, opinions, and advice comes as a surprise, but our narrator embraces the boy as he is, as he has done from the first. Over the years, the adoptive father has been told again and again by white folks that Indian children just are slower, so it is not without a certain sense of relish that he closes with an anecdote of the boy getting even: When a while woman, patronizingly, says James is “so smart for an Indian boy, […] James hears this and tells the white woman that she’s pretty smart for an old white woman” (129).

This encounter gives the narrator hope: he feels, or knows, that the boy will stay with him and take care of him when he gets too old to care for himself.

Alexie has faced some criticism because, well, there’s no denying that virtually all the Indian characters in these stories are alcoholics. In his introduction to this edition of the book (2003), he explains that he’s writing from his own experience, not to feed a stereotype: “[These stories] are the vision of one individual looking at the lives of his family and his entire tribe, so these stories are necessarily biased, incomplete, exaggerated, deluded, and often just plain wrong. But in trying to make them true and real, I am writing what might be called reservation realism” (xxi).

What I like most about these stories is the narrators’ intense awareness of their bodies and the world they are in — this sounds kind of abstract, but what I’m talking about is the passion of experience, say, when James’ adoptive father talks about playing basketball, or about eating venison:

I ate and ate and the dogs ate and ate what they could find and the deer grew in my stomach. The deer grew horns and hooves and skin and eyes that pushed at my rib cage and I ate and ate until I could not feel anything but my stomach expanding and stretched full. All my life the days I remember most with every detail sharp and clear are the days when my stomach was full. (118)

The stories are short and can be read in pretty much any order you like, which makes this a very reader-friendly book. The narrators have strong and engaging voices, and the picture these stories paint, collectively, of life in the Spokane reservation, feels consistently real. You might also experience a sudden thirst for Diet Pepsi.

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About annette.c.boehm

words escape me.

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