The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven
Narratological Analysis of “This Is What It Means to Say Phoenix, Arizona”
Sherman Alexie uses embedded analeptic narratives throughout the chapter “This Is What It Means to Say Phoenix, Arizona” in Tonto and The Lone Ranger Fistfight in Heaven to emphasise the importance of both the characters memories and pasts on their lives. Embedded in the main chronological storyline, non-linear flashbacks follow Victor and Thomas’s pasts, showing their relationship to the present, since memory is activated by association with the present. By using a single narrative interspersed with flashbacks, Alexie frames the narrative like memory: prompted by free association, rather than always in a set chronologic order.
Victor’s childhood memories of his relationship with Thomas occur after he realizes he will need Thomas and his money to get to Phoenix. Victor “…held his head in his hands and thought about Thomas-Builds-The-Fire, remembered the little details, tears and scars, the bicycle the shared for a summer, so many stories” (Alexie 62). It’s clear Thomas and Victor’s past is causing Victor pain. After Victor and Thomas leave, another analeptic passage vividly reveals how Victor beat Thomas while he was drunk, “…Victor was really drunk and beat Thomas up for no reason at all” (65). Later in the central narrative, Victor apologizes to Thomas, saying “Yeah, but i’m still sorry” (67). The effect of Victor’s guilt is further exemplified by his memory shown by a second flashback of Thomas helping him escape a wasps nest when he was twelve. “He might have died there, stung a thousand times, if Thomas-Builds-The-Fire had not come by” (68). Victor’s flashbacks reveal how much this event still impacts his life as they speak to each other in the present main narrative, embedded analytic passages easily allow past moments of their troubled intertwined past relationship to be vibrantly put on display for the reader, elevating the importance of these past events.
Further analiptic flashbacks reveal Thomas-Builds-The-Fire and Victor’s childhood friendship to show what the significance of them taking a trip together and possibly repairing some sort of relationship means for them. A flashback to the fourth of july celebration reveals their early friendship.“Victor…Hurry up. We’re going to miss the fireworks” (62). and later growing apart “They hated Thomas for his courage, his brief moment as a bird” (70). The embedded analytic narrative here is used to give background information parallel to the central narrative. These memories of past occurrences are more significant as embedded narratives since the break from the frame interrupts the flow of the story and magnifies the importance of what happens in them. In these breaks from the main narrative Victor and Thomas’s past is the cause of their strained relationship inside the central chronological narrative. When in the main plotline “Victor was ashamed of himself. Whatever happened to the tribal ties, the sense of community?…He owed Thomas something, anything.”(74). This reaction is supported by what the reader saw in the flashbacks. Interspersed reflections in the form of analiptic flashbacks are a way of narration, used as as the means by which one can connect the past and present.
Later analeptic passages reveal the importance of Victor’s discordant relationship with his father and it’s effect on him though his life. In the central present narrative plotline, Victor must retrieve his father’s ashes and during the process comes to terms with his father’s past actions. The introduction to Victor’s father’s occurs through a memory, Victor reflects back to when Thomas told him how his father “…wants to run and hide. He doesn’t want to be found” (61). predicting his abandonment of Victor and his family. Another past description of Victor’s father is given by Thomas after Victor asks, “What do you remember?” (69). Thomas’s recalling the story of Victor’s father’s past kindness towards him allows for Victor to reflect. “Victor was quiet for a long time. He searched his mind for memories of his father, found the good ones, a few bad ones, added it all up, and smiled” (69). Revealing Victor’s father’s impact. The flashback here catalyzes the memories of Victor’s father, allowing for the reader to experience them, making them a larger, more real, lucid part of the story, just as they are in the characters minds.
Throughout the chapter, these embedded analytic flashbacks give a glimpse directly into characters past though each characters own reflection back on these events, creating a more direct connection emphasizing their importance in the present central narrative and thus on both Thomas and Victor’s present lives.
Sherman Alexie’s Survival Equation and the Resilience of Native American Culture
Sherman Alexie’s The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven portrays the hardships faced by Native Americans at the hands of the overpowering force of mainstream American culture. Alexie uses multiple perspectives in his book to convey the complexity of the situation on the reservation. However, his recurring themes such as survival, tradition, and underlying cultural ties connect the stories together as does the overarching message about the resilience of Native American people and their culture. With these consistent themes, the multiple perspectives found in his stories prove the validity of his cultural points due to their repetition. In his composite novel, Alexie reveals the resilience of Native American culture by breaking it down into a mathematical equation that makes an important statement about the survival of Native American culture.
Alexie brings to light the importance of imagination through his illustration of the process of survival: “Survival = Anger x Imagination. Imagination is the only weapon on the reservation” (150). The ability to imagine a better world or a better situation is a coping mechanism for the Native Americans. One way they do this is through storytelling. This is shown when the narrator of “A Good Story” tells a happy story at the request of his mother. He observes the poor situation he and his mother are in at the beginning of the story with no food in their cabinets and only sad stories. He concocts a lighthearted story for his mother and in the end states, “Believe me, there is just barely enough goodness in all of this” (Alexie 144). Using imagination to form a simple story that painted a pleasing picture was enough to make the hardships of life seem bearable. In this case, the use of imagination was “barely enough.” Alexie attributes the power of such imagination to its necessity in Native American society in his epigraph for the chapter “Imagining the Reservation,” which is a quote from Lawrence Thornton: “We have to believe in the power of imagination because it’s all we have and ours is stronger than theirs” (Alexie 149). This quote comes from one of Thornton’s novels where a character is in a situation similar to the Native Americans because he is left to imagine his country the way it was in the past to deal with the declining situation of the present. This quote itself conveys that imagination is stronger in the Native American society because it is integral to their survival. The necessity of imagination is also exemplified in the story by the need for tradition and the deeply rooted need for stories as a connection to tradition. This is shown when Victor decides to let Thomas accompany him to Arizona. He lets him go because he “felt a sudden need for tradition” (Alexie 62). Imagination is strengthened by its necessity and the necessity of it is extensive because of the roots imagination has in their tradition of storytelling. With this in mind, Alexie’s composite novel can be viewed as a product of necessity and imagination with the purpose of carrying on a piece of Native American culture.
While conveying its necessity and potency, Alexie conveys that the Indian imagination is being tethered in modern American society. The narrator in “Imagining the Reservation” poses an important question concerning the effect of modern society on Indian imagination: “How can we imagine a new language when the language of the enemy keeps our dismembered tongues tied to his belt? (Alexie 152). Native American culture only finds a place in society by incorporating modern day American culture into its expression. In the subsequent lines, Alexie furthers this restriction: “How do we imagine a new life when a pocketful of quarters weighs our possibilities down?” (152). Not only is their expression in society limited, but their culture’s survival in general is threatened in a materialistic society. This book shows that a culture that favors storytelling, dancing, and ancestral connections struggles to survive amidst mainstream American culture, which is focused on the material factors in society including monetary value and gain.
The tension between the two competing cultures in the book that is tethering the Native American imagination also brings to light the differences between those two cultures, which produces anger among the Indian population, the second factor in Alexie’s survival equation. Rather than traditional anger, he seems to suggest that anger is meant to refer to the recognition of the suppression of their culture by the invading forces of American culture, which should foster a conscious need to remain separate from said culture. In “The Trial of Thomas Builds-the-Fire,” Thomas states: “Some may have wanted to kill me for my arrogance, but others respected my anger, my refusal to admit defeat” (Alexie 98). If this sentiment were transposed into another equation similar to the survival equation Alexie wrote about, it would read “anger = resilience.” Anger is rooted in the wrongs of the past for the Native Americans. When combined, as Alexie suggests in his equation, with a strong imagination that can envision a better world or at least a future where Indian culture can be positively viewed, the product is survival in the present.
In Alexie’s portrayal of Native American culture, he reveals a culture that, on the surface, appears to be disappearing while conveying that, with its deep roots, it has the ability to withstand the oppression put upon it by mainstream American culture. He reveals the keys to achieving survival to be imagination paired with anger or more specifically the refusal to give up or give in. Imagination among Native Americans is manifested in their storytelling, a tradition that is deeply rooted in their culture, and also provides a coping mechanism to use amidst oppressive conditions. With this explanation, Alexie’s composite novel, which conveys the resilience of Native Americans (anger) through the telling of multiple stories (imagination), can be seen as an aide to survival that serves to inform everyone of the situation and the true culture of his people, which is disappearing in mainstream America. His survival equation encapsulates his reason for writing.
The Trouble With Karma: Close Reading of The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven
Native Americans are often a forgotten minority, in history and in literature. The slaughter of native lives and the obliteration of their culture is an unfortunate American legacy. Luckily, writer Sherman Alexie has attempted to fill the cultural void and illuminate the plight of his people. He does this through a style of writing he labels “reservation realism.” Although natives are the opposite of immigrants, the experience of the Native American minority shares many similarities with the discourse surrounding immigrants, therefore rendering reservation realism a viable division of immigrant literature. This genre uses stories that are often “biased,” “exaggerated”, or “deluded” as a means of documentation and translation of the Native American experience (Alexi). The idea here is that the “story-truth” can be truer than the actual truth (TTC 203). Reservation realism combines the storytelling tradition practiced within tribes with historical fact in order to capture the essence of reservation life. This is exemplified in “The Trial of Thomas Builds-The-Fire”, a story in Alexi’s collection The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven. This story incorporates the surreal theme of reincarnation into its triangulated structure combined with a variety of literary devices in order to document the Native American experience, and to show the shared nature of their suffering.
Initially, Sherman Alexie utilizes a timeline divided into three tales, each representing a different reincarnation of the protagonist, Thomas Builds The Fire. He creates this structure in order to demonstrate the progression in native resistance as time passes, and to reveal the similarities between the experiences of Thomas’s incarnations. The three stories told by Thomas are also buttressed with details relating to his current predicament as a supposed felon. Thomas begins as an alleged criminal on trial in Spokane Washington. The reader is not informed as to what he is on trial for specifically because Thomas himself his unsure. While he is in a holding cell, the white officers discuss Thomas’s “future,” “immediate present” and “past” (93). Here is another example of the triangulation of time. Thomas’s past, future, and present are all connected. His history is shared with those who came before him. This theme of connectivity continues throughout the story as Alexie explores the idea of a collective, ancestral consciousness through reincarnation.
Alexie uses negative diction when describing Thomas’s propensity for telling stories, and exploits his protagonist’s present silence as a symbol, to demonstrate the destruction of Native American culture caused by white Americans. The guards at the prison where Thomas is being held, mention that he has a “dangerous” “storytelling fetish” The negative connotation of the word “fetish” implies that storytelling is somehow taboo, and this is further emphasized by the labeling of the fetish as “dangerous.” Since storytelling is a staple of native culture, treating it as a crime shows how caucasian Americans violated native traditions. In addition, the word “dangerous” illuminates the fear felt by those who believed that native culture threatened the colonial way of life. Negative diction is also manipulated in order to evince the effect of white Americans on native culture. For example, a native man named Walks Along labels his wife as a “savage in polyester pants” (94). The way in which Walks Along treats his wife is an example of a phenomenon called assimilation, which is the label given to the way minorities conform to a new way of life, perhaps losing their previous identities in the processes. He has conformed to mainstream American life to the extent that he now labels his own wife as a “savage”. Assimilation is a trend common to the immigrant experience. Colonials and pioneers marginalized Native Americans severely and it resulted in a loss of their cultural identity. Alexie is implying that this is one of the many negative effects that has resulted from the imposition of American conventions on native people.
In this story, silence is used as a symbol of oppression for the protagonist and for his people. The officers reveal that Thomas had “agreed to remain silent” and has not “spoken in nearly twenty years” (94). Thomas will not tell stories anymore because of the negative consequences that he, and those similar to him, have faced for doing so. His silence is an adaptation, gained from those before him who spoke and suffered the consequences. The reveal of this “adaptation” helps Alexi relate Thomas Builds A Fire suppression of the minority voice indicative of the immigrant experience. Silence in the face of oppression connotes defeat, victimizing Thomas and the native people. The reluctance to speak, or the loss of voice represents a loss of liberty. However, Thomas does not remain silent. The narrator informs the reader that Thomas began making “small noises that contained more emotion and meaning than entire sentences” (94). Eventually, Thomas breaks his silence when he defends himself at his trial. The slow progression that helps Thomas find his voice parallels the progression the natives in Thomas’s story makes from passive resistance to active retaliation. Finding his voice is a way for Thomas to find solidarity in the face of his oppressors.
Alexie also employs animal diction in his first tale to represent the inhumane treatment of natives, to infuse his story with the focus on animals and nature pervasive in Native American culture, and to interject a fantastical aspect, thus exemplifying reservation realism. His first story begins in 1858 and Thomas is a “young pony” who is taken captive (96). An American general writes a letter describing the stolen “captured animals”; the “poor creatures” that he regrets killing in order to prevent a “stampede” (97). Although the general is referring to actual horses, in the dialogue describing racial conflicts, members of the offending party often view the minority in animal terms. Native Americans were herded onto reservations as if they were horses or cattle. The metaphor is then extended as Alexi personifies the “mother” horses who “cried for their dead children.” Native Americans traditionally believe that humans share a brotherhood with animals. Here, Sherman Alexie is exemplifying one of the staples of reservation realism, an infusion of native culture into American literature.
The structure of this story enables Alexi to show the ways in which the native response to American oppression evolved over time. The story continues as Thomas describes how, as a pony, he let a man “saddle” him but then “suddenly rose up and bucked him off and broke his arm” (98). This single act of defiance marks the beginning of the progression of natives from hopeless victims that transformed into worthy adversaries. However, it is important to note that the defiance occurs as the response to imposed hardships and oppression. This parallels the experience of the natives in regards to their colonial captors. Native Americans were exploited and slaughtered by European settlers, and forced to vacate communities they had occupied for centuries. Just like the “young pony” they did not start the conflict. Moreover, in Thomas’s second story, he is a man named Qualchan fighting in an Indian war. Qualchan was a real Yakima chief and Thomas’s version of his story is accurate (“Spokane History Timeline”). This is an example of the actual history that infiltrates Alexie’s fictional story; the “realism” portion of reservation realism. Qualchan was hung with six other “Indians…who had never raised a hand in anger to any white” (98). The hanging is another instance of the native reluctance toward violence, compared with the brutality of the whites. It emphasizes that Thomas, although on trial for some unidentified crime, is a victim since he shares a past with his suffering ancestors. Finally, in Thomas’s third story he is a man named Wild Coyote who is also engaged in a conflict with the whites. Even though he desires peace between “white and Indians”, he notices that the whites have “cannons and had lied before” so he decides to attack the men rather than brokering peace (100). This signifies the complete escalation from passive resistance to violent conflict. Although the murder and scalping of the white men by Wild Coyote is brutal, Alexi makes the reader sympathetic to the plight of the natives with the previous stories. He shows that this crime committed by Thomas as Wild Coyote, is a response to the the previous atrocities he has suffered.
The author also manipulates imagery in order to portray those who desire Thomas’s incarceration in a negative light. It is prudent to remember that this unusual story is Thomas’s testimonial for his trial. Alexie wants the reader to be the jury and to decide that the plaintiff is innocent. When the judge asks Thomas what his point is in telling this story, he informs the judge that Spokane is “building a golf course” named after Qualchan located in the same valley where he was hanged (99). He’s saying that the predecessors of the men who hung him are now publicly commemorating him. However, this seems like a weak attempt of repentance. The fact that the monument is a golf course, cheapens the action. Golf is a sport synonymous with the white upper class. White, privileged men are undoubtedly building this golf course and they are putting Qualchan’s name on it as a consolation prize. At least, this is what Alexie is implying. This is an example of the bias present in reservation realism. Alexie wants the reader to be incredibly biased toward Thomas and the natives so he embellishes historical events and uses imagery, such as the golf course, that emphasizes a negative bias against the whites.
Furthermore, Alexie portrays the injustice that Americans perpetrated against natives through depiction of the legal officials at Thomas’s trial as injudicious and corrupt. Furthermore, a theme of injustice permeates this story. Since Thomas represents the Native American community, the guards and the judge signify white America. When Thomas is in prison, the officers are deliberating about what to charge him with. They are inventing a “felony charge” for Thomas because they “don’t need his kind around” (94). The members of the justice system are corrupt thus connoting universal societal corruption in regards to minorities. If the system that is designed to uphold justice fails to do so it is logical to assume that justice does not exist, at least in the world of Thomas Builds The Fire. When Thomas eventually admits to Wild Coyote’s murder, he expresses his remorse admitting that he is “sorry that those men had to die” (102). He is even “happy” for the surviving soldiers who “fought well” and “deserved to live another day” (101). However, this is disregarded by the judge who gets Thomas to admit to the “cold blooded” murder. They judge does not care about the reasons for Thomas’s actions. He just wants to put a native in jail. This brand of injustice represents the unfair treatment of minorities in America by the judicial system.
Although unrealistic, the theme of reincarnation helps the author to show that the histories of the Native American peoples are connected. For the purposes of this work, Thomas is reincarnated and has actually experiences all of the events depicted however, the reincarnation can also be interpreted figuratively. Crimes committed by natives against whites in the present era, are the consequences of past events. Since this collection, and reservation realism, often has a focus on the civil unrest and criminal activity currently occurring within the native community, Alexi is trying to explain this behavior through the fantastical story of Thomas Builds The Fire. Here, is an instance of the “story-truth” carrying more weight than an actual, realistic portrayal. If Thomas actually existed he would not remember his past lives even if reincarnation is possible. Still, the surreal theme succeeds in making Thomas’s story more powerful, and thus more persuasive. However the fictitious court ultimately disregards any mitigating circumstances and Thomas is sent to jail.
On his way to the penitentiary, Thomas shares the bus with “six other prisoners” of various races. The bus will deliver them to “a new kind of reservation, barrio, ghetto, logging-town tin shack” (103). Once again, a native man is being taken involuntarily from his home and the vicious cycle continues. It is important to note that Thomas is not alone and is instead accompanied by other races of oppressed people. This shows that oppression and injustice in America is not indicative to any one race. Suffering is as integral to the American experience as baseball and apple pie. The same conflict of prejudice and oppression is continually reborn, just like Thomas. Perhaps Alexi is suggesting that it is up to us to stop history from repeating itself.
Lone Ranger and Tonto: Struggles with Isolation and Assimilation
Sherman Alexie’s The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven is a collection of short stories that explores the continuing Native American struggles in the modern era. The product of more than 500 years of oppression and persecution, the world of the Native American reservations is plagued by poverty, dysfunction, and alcoholism. Living in one of these reservations, Victor Joseph is a man who is torn between the modern world and the world of ancient tradition. He struggles with issues of identity and the place of Native American beliefs and history in a white American-dominated hostile environment. While going to a 7-11 at 3 am on a particularly hot night, Victor reminisces about the time he left the reservation with a white girlfriend to start a new life in Seattle. Through depicting Victor’s tribulations, the short story “The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven” explores Native American issues of alienation and assimilation, and how these problems can be addressed by members of the community.
One of Alexie’s main themes in his short story is the sense of alienation that Native Americans feel in the modern world. The story begins with Victor walking up to a 7-11 to get a creamsicle 3 am in the morning. Once he enters the store, he notices the clerk giving looking him over, commenting, “He looked me over so could describe me to the police later.” It’s important to note that Victor is at a 7-11 store on a Native American reservation. Even within the confines of his home territory, Victor feels a strong sense of alienation and “othering”. He is not just a man buying a simple creamsicle, but a suspect later to be described to the police. Victor’s identity as a Native American is constantly reinforced by this sense of alienation. As Victor travels down a Seattle road to escape a violent and turbulent argument with his girlfriend, he is stopped by an officer for “Making people nervous. You don’t fit the profile of this neighborhood.” He himself comments how he doesn’t seem to fit in anywhere. This sense of alienation isn’t just a literary device, but a very real perception by many Native Americans. According to a study carried out in 1987, many Native Americans suffer from “perceptions towards feelings of alienation” (Trimble). It is this native American feeling of “otherness” that Alexie attempts to capture in his work.
Alexie also shows in his short story how feelings of alienation can lead to a desire to assimilate with the “othering” force. Critic Andrew Dix comments how such pressures to assimilate not only lead to the drowning out of Native American voices, but also make it impossible to construct a cohesive native American identity (Dix). Victor is torn between two different ways of being, his traditional Native American heritage and the hostile world of modern urban living. Victor’s departure from Seattle was his attempt to rid himself of the cognitive dissonance of living in these two worlds at once, a way to assimilate his “otherness” into the wider White American culture. Yet Victor’s attempt at assimilation in Seattle did little to separate him from the alienation he experienced at the reservation. When he’s stopped by the police officer in Seattle, Victor thinks to himself, “I wanted to tell him I didn’t fit the profile of the country but I knew that would just get me in trouble.” Even hundreds of miles away from the reservation, Victor feels as if he’s still somehow confined to it.
While Victor’s attempt at assimilation ends with his return to the reservation, he never allows his negative experiences to leave him jaded and cynical. When Victor breaks up with his white girlfriend, he thinks to himself, “When one person starts to look at another person as a criminal, then the love is over. It’s logical.” The end of the relationship is a metaphor for the end of Victor’s flirtation with assimilation. According to critic Jolie Sheffer, “White women seem to offer the promise of the American dream in the future (a mirage in the distance), but, given US history, also prevent pantribal solidarity and threaten Native American identities” (Sheffer). Victor’s time away from the reservation and his encounters with people outside of it showed him how actively hostile the world is to his identity and way of life. Even when confronted by the hostility of the 7-11 clerk, Victor does not act in kind. Instead, he makes the manager laugh, asking him if he knows the theme to The Brady Bunch. He counters hostility with humor, leading the clerk to give him the creamsicle for free. Thus, Victor refuses to be a part of the system that perpetuates self-alienation.
Sherman Alexie’s short story “The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven” is a trenchant piece of literature that explores Native American issues of alienation and assimilation, and how individuals can overcome those obstacles. Victor feels isolated and alienated from mainstream white American culture. Even when riding down the road in his car, he cannot help but be reminded that he is different. That he is an “other.” Even when he attempts to assimilate, his efforts are thrown back at him. After living with his white girlfriend for some time, he comes to be a personification of the destruction of the Native American identity. When he eventually returns to his hometown, he’s again treated to the same “othering” process that he’s experienced his whole life. Yet instead of lashing out or saying nothing, he takes the opportunity to create a positive encounter. Victor figures out the key to stopping the infinite cycle of alienation and assimilation: mutual understanding. Ultimately, Sherman Alexie’s work stands as a testament to the struggles of the Native American community to maintain identity in the face of assimilation.
DIX, ANDREW. “Escape Stories: Narratives and Native Americans in Sherman Alexie’s The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven.” Yearbook of English Studies (2001): 155.Academic OneFile. Web. 3 Apr. 2016.
Sheffer, Jolie A. “The optics of interracial sexuality in Adrian Tomine’s shortcomings and Sherman Alexie’s the lone ranger and tonto fistfight in heaven.” College Literature 41.1 (2014): 119+. Academic OneFile. Web. 3 Apr. 2016.
Trimble, Joseph E. “Self-perception and Perceived Alienation among American Indians.” Journal of Community Psychology J. Community Psychol. 15.3 (1987): 316-33. Web.
The Unbreakable Cycle
One of the worst feelings in the world is the one you get when it seems like you are trapped in the life you live. This is the feeling when the routine of your life gets so repetitive and tired that it’s stifling, and the city you live in becomes a dull, inescapable prison. For many Native Americans, this feeling can be amplified tenfold — namely, by living on a reservation with the same people for your entire life. There’s only so much to do and getting off the reservation is both terrifying and difficult. The outside world may offer a variety of opportunities, but many are not armed with the skills needed to take advantage of those opportunities and many more may face the forms of racism embedded in American life. It is this rational fear that, on the basis of contemporary literature, keeps so many Native Americans from breaking the constraints of the reservation and moving on with their lives. Victor’s life is the perfect example of this scenario. In the short story “The Only Traffic Signal on the Reservation Doesn’t Flash Red Anymore” by Sherman Alexie, Victor and his friend Adrian seem to be caught in an endless loop. The whole story projects the trapped feeling that Victor experiences through various symbols such as the broken traffic light and rising basketball stars. Victor is a lost character, desperate for change; however, he is a follower and is too fearful to break the routine and face the unknown before anyone else does so.
Victor does not know what he wants to do. Actually, he knows what he wants but not how to free himself from his routine. The story begins with Adrian and Victor playing a form of Russian Roulette with a BB gun. When Adrian shoots the gun into his mouth and the BB is fired, Victor asks if he is dead yet. “Nope… not yet,” is Adrian’s response before he asks for a beer, having forgot that the two of them have quit drinking (44). This section of the story immediately gives the reader an unsettling feeling. The “not yet” implies that death is something Alexie’s characters are anticipating. The immediate request for beer afterwards is so automatic that it just seems routine. They are not used to change and are so lost in the same old cycle that they do not even think twice. What really makes this cycle seem so stifling and permanent is the way the story ends. One year passes, and Victor goes on to say that year has passed and that they have done stuff such as “ate and slept and read the newspaper” (50) in between. It is basically the same scene as at the opening of the story. Not only does the repetition of the scene close the circuit of the routine that the two seem to live, but the meaningless nothings are also the only thing that Victor mentions happening in between. Clearly nothing exciting enough has happened in that entire year to give him a different view on anything. He’s bored. He feels trapped.
The broken light on the reservation can be viewed as a symbol used to parallel Victor’s character. The fact that it is broken is a huge indication of the way Victor feels. He feels broken, just like the light. However, because it has been that way for so long, no one really notices anymore. And if they notice they do not care. The light does not do all that much because there are not many cars. “About only one car an hour passed by,” (48) so how useful was the light in any case? How useful does Victor feel if he is doing the same thing that everyone else is doing on the reservation over and over again? No one wants to fix the traffic light. No one makes it a priority. No one wants to fix Victor. He does not want to save himself. He is not making it his priority. So time presses on, and a year later the light is still broken, and Victor is still trapped and broken as well.
The biggest way that Victor copes with his feeling of helplessness is by watching others and hoping that they break the mold. In the beginning of the story Vicor and Adrian are discussing Julius Windmaker, the up and coming basketball star. Victor immediately flashes back to talk about how he used to play basketball and be good at it until he lost his edge and started drinking. The reader is immediately able to see the personal connection that Victor is making with Julius, clearly wanting him to succeed for more reasons other than just wanting to see a new sports star. After hearing some noise, they watch Julius being taken away by a tribal cop. When Adrian states that he thinks Julius is going to go bad and fail, Victor immediately denies that, claiming that “He’s just horsing around,” (49). He does not want to think that someone with such a bright future will ruin his future, even if he and everyone else before and after him has. Maybe if someone else makes it all the way and succeeds, it will give Victor the motivation to do the same. It will break the endless loop and maybe others will follow. At the end of the story Victor and Adrian go to see Julius’s game a year later to see that he is too drunk to play well. He ends up passed out on Victor’s floor the next morning after stumbling drunkenly into his house. The two friends start talking about a third grader named Lucy who is so good a basketball that she is playing with the sixth graders. “God, I hope she makes it all the way,” Victor says. He just puts all of his hopes into the next one. And the cycle continues.
Ultimately, Victor has found himself trapped in the lifestyle of any other self-confining Native American. Too afraid to leave the reservation and build a life off of it, he traps himself in a depressing cyclical routine. He is lost in his own life, unsure of where to go or what to do with himself. He’s broken and no one, not anyone else nor himself, seems to care enough to fix him. He is like the broken traffic light, just part of the scenery at this point. He is nothing special. Sometimes it just feels like an escape from yourself is impossible. Any routine can go from comfortable to stifling. Sometimes it is both, as it is in Victor’s case. Breaking the cycle is much easier said than done.
Illuminating Irony: Technology on Sherman Alexie’s Reservation
Sherman Alexie’s Native American characters in The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven are modern Indians who are often fixated on the glories of their past. In their modernization, one of the most blatant attacks on their pride and respect for their traditional ways comes from the technology around them. In perhaps Alexie’s subtlest use of irony, technology manifests itself throughout his book, highlighting the tremendous gap between Indians now and Indians before the time of reservations. Indeed, the technology itself — TV, radio, even traffic signals — serves as a reminder of the outside influence oozing in, and its inevitable use by Native Americans is another sign of their surrender. Alexie uses technology in his book to highlight such instances of irony.Television is perhaps the most often used example of technology in The Lone Ranger and Tonto, coming into most of the characters’ lives indirectly. In fact, one would be hard-pressed to find any character interacting with the TV for longer than a sentence, yet its presence is undeniable; it gives all of the characters a connection to the outside world. Few Indians in the book venture beyond the reservation, yet none are totally clueless about outside society in general or, more specifically, about how that society sees them. References to Indians in popular culture, like comparisons to Tonto (155, 164), are made frequently to highlight the large gap between how Indians are perceived and how they really act. Most interestingly, it also gives these characters a window through which to see their own world. A young Victor sees a fistfight between his uncles like a hurricane on the news and sees himself as one of the crazy people who “tie themselves to the trees on the beach” (2) so they can “feel the force of the hurricane firsthand” (2). He also finds hollowness in the saying “at least we’ve got each other” (4) during a particularly giftless Christmas, finding the expression meaningless because he’s heard it before on “the old Christmas movies they watched on television” (5). The events unfolding on television give these characters another backdrop against which to situate their lives, making their problems seem a little less daunting and a little more universal.Television’s main role in the book is more direct: while it appears in the book passively, it is often followed by a frightening or violent event. A family is quietly watching television in “The Fun House” right before a mouse runs up a woman’s leg (76); a character casually mentions he doesn’t watch TV anymore because it “exploded and left a hole in the wall” (p 114); in one especially unsettling paragraph, a character “dreamed about television” and “woke up crying” (108). Alexie uses this narrative technique to quite literally show the negative impact of television, or technology in general, on these characters. The television, a symbol of sedentary and passive involvement, contrasts the punch of these events in an ironic way that Alexie is fond of.Music plays a large role on Alexie’s reservation, with characters often alluding to old native songs and drums (165). More pertinently, modern music is just as important to some of these characters, particularly to Victor and his father in the story “Because My Father Said He Was the Only Indian Who Saw Jimi Hendrix Play ‘The Star-Spangled Banner’ at Woodstock.” It is this modern music that allows these characters to interact and use technology, finding new meaning in it. Victor observes that his father would play the tape of the performance “until it wore down” (26). These characters are finding solace and pleasure in new, modern things, only to have them slowly disappear. While the tape itself is not why Victor’s father enjoys the music, it is a rather impermanent medium that is relatively unfamiliar to Native Americans and their relation to music. Later, Victor listens to the performance again and finds that “the reverberation came to mean something” (28): in particular, it meant a closer relationship to his father. Both found pleasure in this foreign recording in a purely sonic way. The irony here is that the actual meaning of “The Star-Spangled Banner,” a song about America becoming stronger through war, would not appeal to any Native American. But Jimi’s guitar is an unrefined, piercingly removed rendition of the song, and it invokes happy memories in Victor’s father, reminding Victor of the bonds they share.The broken traffic signal in the story “The Only Traffic Signal on the Reservation Doesn’t Flash Red Anymore” is a more specific example of technology in the reservation, but it effectively illustrates how Indians would ideally like to treat such a thing: with apathy or contempt. In the story, two characters are sitting on a porch watching the reservation, and Victor’s friend Adrian ironically mentions that the broken signal could “cause an accident” (48). The two friends are doing what they do best: reminiscing, joking with each other, and quietly passing the day away. It is in this state that this sort of technology is especially jarring and unnecessary to them; the traffic signal is broken and meaningless, a symbol of white attempts to intervene. The road was fine before it was installed.Another specific yet meaningful instance of technology is the train in the story “A Train Is An Order of Occurrence Designed To Lead to Some Result.” The train is the catalyst to Samuel Builds-the-Fire’s barrage of modernity during his days as a working man. Even in the admittedly obtuse story title, we see a train as some sort of charging and the inevitable series of events that will cause something to happen, so we as readers wait for it to show up. What ultimately happens is perhaps Alexie’s most direct use of technology harming Native Americans: a train comes and runs over a willfully surrendered Samuel. Samuel was drunk and suicidal; the train was merely doing what it was made for. The two of them together make up this bizarre, unsettling event. Alexie highlights the blind, mechanical fury of technology by coupling it with the humanistic and flawed nature of Samuel, who represents all Native Americans: whimsical, impulsive and curious. He shows, quite starkly, that these two things together do not produce a happy result.Alexie uses technology to create irony because it represents modernity. It is something that permeates every aspect of life, yet it couldn’t be further from Native American tradition. It works so well for him because Indians use this technology and it interacts with them; it is one aspect of the newer way of life that they simultaneously resent and resign themselves to. No matter how hard these characters work to keep their pride and traditions strong, the very real image of a Native American family huddled around the TV set undoes that work. Not coincidentally, Alexie has come to the forefront about his own personal resentment of technology: in recent interviews, he has blasted the Kindle and other eBooks, calling them an “easily pirated device” and humorously noting that one could fall into the hands of the government (and saying, as an Indian, he has “plenty of reasons to fear the U.S. government”). More seriously, Alexie laments the loss of community-based celebrations of books, mentioning how much he enjoys “traveling from bookstore to bookstore” but noting that demand has since been squelched due to the digitization of both books and their marketing. Deep down, this use of technology in his books to highlight irony stems from a hatred of what this technology has done not only for the Native American way of life, but for life in general. It has reduced personal communication and desensitized people to the benefits of hard work and individual perseverance.
The Relationship between Storytelling and Storyteller in Sherman Alexie’s “The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven”
Sherman Alexie composed “The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven” as a series of digressions that shed light on the inner demons of the narrator. The story clearly demonstrates elements of Native American folklore, which are appropriate for both Alexie and the narrator. The method of storytelling gives us a glimpse into the life of the narrator and allows us to see the world through his eyes, a world whose heavy weight is carried on his shoulders. Whether in Seattle or Spokane, the narrator always feels out of place. The narrator grew up on an Indian reservation and eventually left because of his aspirations. He explains, “I was special, a former college student, a smart kid. I was one of those Indians who was supposed to make it, to rise above the rest of the reservation like a fucking eagle or something. I was the new kind of warrior” (18). Ultimately he finds no happiness out in this new world as he resorts to alcohol and violence to cope with his feelings of displacement; “And I always had crazy dreams. I always have had them, but it seemed they became nightmares more often in Seattle” (17). He returns to his reservation, quits drinking and eventually finds a steady job. However, he still is uneasy with life as he “… [He] wished [he] lived closer to the river, to the falls where ghosts of salmon jump” (19). Even after returning to his reservation he still feels out of place and wants something more, something that was taken from his elders many years ago. The narrator’s state of mind is bothersome and marked with anger towards the white race. The digressions in the story present explanations for his tainted view and faithlessness in white people. The story portrays the narrator’s relationship with his white girlfriend as destructive, marked with a lack of trust and commitment. The narrator explains, “In Seattle I broke lamps. She and I would argue and I’d break a lamp, just pick it up and throw it down” (16). Further in the story we find out about a dream that drives the narrator to leave his white girlfriend, in which he dreamed “three mounted soldiers play polo with a dead Indian woman’s head” (17). These morbid dreams clearly show his issues with white people and inability to forget the past injustices against his kind.The digressions are utilized to express the mental anguish of the narrator, someone who is always haunted of his ancestors past as well as the oppression of today’s generations. Furthermore, these digressions let us tap into the mind of a depressed and lost narrator who is so haunted by his demons that he proclaims, “I wish I could sleep. I put down my paper or book and turn off all the lights, lie quietly in the dark. It may take hours, even years, for me to sleep again” (19). The unconventional structure of this story presents to us someone who is clearly disturbed and always thinking of the past, both his and his ancestors, and the failures they entailed. For example, his stint in Seattle ultimately concluded with a dead-end job and a dead-end relationship. Looking back on his failed attempt at city life, the narrator proclaims “There’s an old Indian poet who said that Indians can reside in the city, but they can never live there. That’s as close to truth as any of us can get” (18).Throughout the story we never learn the name of the narrator, which signifies identity issues. He runs into to some complications with authorities one night while trying to drive off some steam from a heated fight with his girlfriend. He was told by the police that he didn’t fit the profile of the neighborhood he was driving through, however he “…wanted to tell him that [he] didn’t really fit the profile of the country…” (15). The narrator never feels at home or a peace because of these identity problems. He reinforces this idea when he says, “Seems like I’d spend my whole life that way, looking for anything I recognized” (15). The narrator is a lost individual who searches for any familiarity to comfort him as he struggles with living by the standards of today. Sherman Alexie’s style of storytelling is essential in this piece for us to truly understand the trials and tribulations of the narrator. The story is unconventional and sporadic, quite frankly it is all over the place. However, this is appropriate for the narrator’s state of mind which is haunted by the fate of his ancestors and lacking a feeling of belonging. The story changes directions many times because the narrator is a lost individual. He has no real direction in life and seems to have given up on discovering who he really is. The real significance of this story is not within the plot, however it is carefully handed to us, little by little, within the story’s many digressions.
Dealing With the Present via the Past in The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven
In Sherman Alexie’s “The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven”, the past is never really past. The aftershocks of 500 years of Native American persecution, oppression, and neglect continue to haunt the world of the reservation, in the form of alcoholism, poverty, and familial dysfunction. In spite of all this-or perhaps because of it-ancient tribal tradition/ritual lives on, if in a modified, more contemporary version. Throughout the story, the old ways-whether they be storytelling or vision seeking-serve to renew hope, and strengthen the bonds of the community. Thus, the past is both a destructive and a redemptive force within the novel. It is at once a source of continuing suffering and an antidote to that suffering.These two opposing forces are best represented by two of the novel’s principal characters: Victor and Thomas-Builds-the-Fire. Victor, raised in poverty by an alcoholic, “failure” of a father, can only see the past through dark colored glasses. For him, the past is a force that, more often than not, leaves disaster in its wake; the tragedy of the past begets the tragedy of the present, pain begets pain. It is an endless and indefatigable cycle. Thomas-Builds-the-Fire on the other hand, is a man who sees value in the past and in tradition-hence his role as a storyteller. When Thomas speaks of the past in his stories, he speaks of past Indian glory, of acts of bravery and sacrifice, and in such a past he sees hope for the future. For each man, the past holds a different meaning, and a different potential; where one sees only decay, the other sees the possibility for rebirth.In the first few pages of the novel Victor lays out his belief in the power of the past to wreak havoc on the present,”Their…anger had not died. Instead, it moved from Indian to Indian…giving each a specific, painful memory. Victor’s father remembered the time his own father was spit on as they waited for a bus in Spokane. Victor’s mother remembered how the Indian Health Service doctor sterilized her moments after Victor was born…Indians continued to drink harder and harder, as if anticipating” (8).Here we see a generation of Indians, consumed by their past, by memories of past injustices against them, fallen into a drunken despair. As Victor sees it, such a situation is, for the Indians, veritably unavoidable; despair breeds alcoholism, which breeds poverty, which breeds despair and so on and so forth.In the same chapter Victor exclaims, “There was enough geography and history [in both his parents] to destroy the reservation and leave only random debris and furniture” (11). Thus, the tragedy of the present, or “the now” as Victor calls it, is inevitably bound up in the tragedy of the past. More precisely, the inability to let go of past hurt leads to the inability to move forward, to progress, i.e. self-betterment. The contemporary ârezâ? (Indian slang for reservation), like Victor, is a victim of such a cycle.At the other end of the spectrum, we have Thomas-Builds-the-Fire, who, via the ancient Indian art of oral storytelling, uses the past to try and heal the present. Thomas mixes elements of the traditional with elements of the modern in order to make his stories all that much more relevant, and all the more urgent.His goal is to motivate young reservation Indians like himself to put down the bottle, turn away from the squalor of “the now”, see the glory of the past, and understand the promise of the future. One very poignant example of such a story can be found in the aptly titled chapter “A Drug Called Tradition”. In this story, “three Indian boys are drinking diet Pepsi and talking about Benjamin Lake” when suddenly they decide”…to be real Indians…and have their vision, to receive their true names, their adult names…their visions arrive. They are all carried away to the past, to the moment before any of them took their first drink of alcohol. The boy Thomas throws his whiskey through a window. The boy Victor spills his vodka down the drain. Then the boys sing. They sing and dance and drum. They steal horses. I can see them. They steal horses.â? (21)The story expresses a longing to return to a type of glorified, pre-reservation-blues past, in which Indians were still “real Indians” and they did not carry the historical/emotional baggage associated with contemporary reservation life. Thomasâs storytelling invokes a past that does not dishearten but inspires. Hence, “A Drug Called Tradition” is about seeing the positive in Indian history instead of only the negative. It presents an alternative to Victor’s highly negative and highly counterproductive attitude, which is mired in the history of Native American tragedy, as opposed to Native American triumph.”The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven” presents us with two ways of perceiving and dealing with the past in contemporary Indian life. In the end, Alexie leaves us with these words as a means of choosing between the two,”Your past is a skeleton walking one step behind you and your future is a skeleton walking one step in front of you…Now, these skeletons are made of memories, dreams, and voices. And they can trap you in the in-between, between touching and becoming. But theyâre not necessarily evil, unless you let them be…But no matter what…keep walking.” (8)Alexie warns the Victors of the world to âkeep walkingâ? to avoid getting trapped and entangled in the âskeletonsâ? of the past. The past, as he says, is ânot necessarily evilâ?; you can look upon it, in all its ugliness and in all its beauty, but do not get stuck in it. Move on. And this is the essence, paradoxically, of Thomasâs call to return to tradition. This is the idea behind the diet Pepsi vision quest; let us take the good and leave the bad (but do not forget); let us empty the liquor bottle, and once more, learn to steal horses.
Self-Reflection and Cruel Irony in “Amusements”
Sherman Alexie’s “The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven” is a collection of short stories all having to do with the relationship between Indians and white people or the growth and development of the main character, Victor. In the short story “Amusements,” the story of a drunken Indian man named Dirty Joe is told. Victor and his friend Sadie put Dirty Joe on a roller coaster when he is so inebriated that he is passed out, this leads to a crowd watching and laughing at Dirty Joe while he incoherently rides a roller coaster. While Alexie definitely creates a divide between white people and Indians, his main characer is forced to look at his own actions and reconsider how he can negatively affect this divide.
If we look at Victor’s actions and reactions in “Amusements” we will see that Victor recognizes that his actions are part of the problem with the divide between Indians and white men, which is important because it shows how a person has the potential to learn from the hardships of life and use these for personal growth. First and foremost, we see the blatant prejudice that the white people show against Indians. The fear of leaving Dirty Joe alone at the carnival is apparent, “we both knew we couldn’t leave another Indian passed out in the middle of a white carnival,” (55). This suggests that if Victor and Sadie were to leave Dirty Joe alone and passed out drunk, he could be harmed, arrested or even killed by white people. After fear is suggested, Victor explicitly tells the reader that he (and most Indians) “wear fear now like a turquoise choker, like a familiar shawl,” (55). This not only demonstrates that the Indians experience fear, but they live with it every day and they carry it with them everywhere, just like they would with clothes or jewelry. To add to the fear, Victor and Sadie are wildly outnumbered in this story, “I looked around and saw a crowd had gathered […]. Twenty or thirty white faces…,”(56). By showing how outnumbered Sadie and Victor are, Alexie shows how intimidating it was to be an Indian during this time. One of the more violent scenes in this story is when Victor passes two young boys who are mocking him, and one of the young boys “pointed his finger at me [Victor] and shot. ‘Bang,’ he yelled. ‘You’re dead, Indian,” (57). This shows how the entire white society is being raised with hatred towards Indian people, and how even a young boy has the agency to insult and threaten an adult man, simply because he’s Indian. Lastly, when the police show up to investigate what’s going on with Dirty Joe, the carny points to Victor and tells the police that it was his fault. The police yelled at Victor saying, “‘Okay, chief’ […] Get your ass over here,” (57). The police call Victor “chief” in a condescending way, which shows that even the people in position of authority showed prejudice against Indians. When the police yelled at Victor, he ran away and then Alexie added that the police officer “pulled out his billy club from his belt,” (58). This allows the reader to infer that the policeman was ready to hurt Victor, even though he had not yet been convicted of anything.
This story exemplifies the racism and injustice that Victor experiences by the white people, which is the initial cause of the division between Indians and white people during this time. This is significant to the book as a whole because it allows Victor to understand that racism is ever present (if he didn’t already) and it allows him to be able to ignore this and it will better his argument against racism. Alexie includes this to allow readers to see how Indian people are also treated unjustly by white people, Alexie said that he lives through each of his characters, so by writing about things he has experienced, it suggests that these things happen in real life.On the other hand, while Victor is actively threatening to hurt people of his own race, he is not exactly helping them out either. When he first find Dirty Joe passed out drunk he was upset to see him like this, “what the hell do we do with him?” (54). This doesn’t exactly suggest that Victor hates his Indian people, but it shows that he definitely lacks respect for people like Dirty Joe. After all of this, Sadie and Victor sit with Dirty Joe and white people being to crowd around and laugh at Dirty Joe. After everyone laughs at Dirty Joe, Victor says, “We should start charging admission for this show,” (55). Although this is sarcasm, Victor jokes about exploiting one of his peers for money, this shows that he does not value the people and there’s a hint of sincerity in his voice when he talking about exploiting Dirty Joe. As the climax of this short story, Victor puts Dirty Joe on a roller coaster for everybody to laugh at him. Not only does Victor laugh and disrespect Dirty Joe, he puts him in extreme danger by putting him on this roller coaster when he is barely conscious.
Despite the fact that Victor put Dirty Joe in danger, he and Sadie also planned on running away after they realized what had happened, “We walked fast and did our best to be anything but Indian,” (56). This shows that Victor would deny being Indian in order to stay out of trouble. All of these things contribute to the division between Indians and white people, by endangering a fellow Indian man, leaving him there while he’s in danger and being laughed at and then denying his own heritage he undermines his arguments against white people and the discrimination he faces. Alexie Includes this to write to people who may be experiencing racism, this will help readers make sure they avoid causing themselves any extra strife. Perhaps the most significant passage of this short story is the “crazy mirrors” passage. After Victor is running from the policeman, he ends up in a room full of fun house mirrors. The mirrors themselves could represent a distorted view of reality for Victor and the way he perceives himself and how he perceives society. In this passage he also realizes that he has made a mistake, “Crazy mirrors, I thought, the kind that distort your features, make you fatter, thinner, taller, shorter. The kind that make a white man remember he’s the master of ceremonies, barking about the Fat Lady, the Dog-Faced Boy, the Indian who gave up another Indian like a treaty,” (58). This is where Victor realizes what he did to Dirty Joe (offering him up as entertainment) was wrong and defeats his purpose of arguing against the discrimination of Indians. The last passage of the “crazy mirrors” passage is “Crazy mirrors, I thought, the kind that can never change the dark of your eyes and the folding shut of the good part of your past,” (58). This is where Victor realizes that he will always be an Indian, and there’s nothing that he can do to take that part of him away.
While Victor is being discriminated against by white people, he is also doing things that make the situation worse. However, this short story was included in this book because it shows how Victor made a mistake, and then learned from it. People often make mistakes and ignore the lesson behind them, but Victor took this in stride and used it to improve his character.
Racial Biases in a Gas Station
White people have oppressed Native American populations in America for centuries, and racial biases continue to affect Native Americans today. In the short story The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven, the Native American narrator encounters racist behavior from the cashier at the gas station he visits at three in the morning. Racism and the power hierarchy it imposes upon Native Americans are central themes in this story, which is represented by the interactions between the white graveyard-shift worker and the Native American narrator.
The white gas station clerk that sells the narrator a Creamsicle makes assumptions about him due to his race, which reveal the clerk’s racial biases against Native Americans. When the narrator first walks into the store, the cashier greets him and asks him, “How are you doing?” The narrator does not respond, instead he recounts, “I gave him a half-wave as I headed back to the freezer. He looked me over so he could describe me to the police later. I knew the look.” The narrator is so used to racist behavior that he has become accustomed to the way that people look at him when they are afraid of him or expecting criminal behavior from him. The cashier then asks, “Can I help you?” The narrator believes that the cashier was “Searching for some response that would reassure him that I wasn’t an armed robber. He knew the dark skin and long, black hair of mine was dangerous.” The clerk has no reason to believe that the narrator is dangerous, and clearly his fear stems from racist beliefs.
The narrator goads the cashier into believing that he is more dangerous than he is, which represents a rebellion to the power hierarchy that places white people in a more powerful position than Native Americans. After the cashier asks, “Can I help you?” the narrator does not reassure him that he is not dangerous, and instead waits a long time to respond in a way that increases the tension of the situation. He finally says, “Just getting a Creamsicle.” The cashier tries to continue conversation in a further attempt to assess the danger of the narrator. “Pretty hot out tonight?” he asks. The narrator describes this question as “That old rhetorical weather bullshit question designed to put us both at ease.” The narrator is not interested in letting the cashier be at ease, because his ability to make the cashier feel afraid gives him a sense of power. The narrator responds to the question by saying, “Hot enough to make you go crazy.” The cashier “swallowed hard like a white man does in those situations.” Here we see that the narrator continues to let tension build, because the cashier feels a sense of powerlessness being alone in a gas station in the middle of the night with someone he perceives as dangerous, even though this perception is based in racial bias.
The tension is diffused when the narrator reveals that he was never a threat to the cashier by making a joke about the Brady Bunch, and the narrator feels a sense of understanding of the cashier due to their shared powerlessness in the world. Before the tension is diffused, the narrator describes the cashier as, “misplaced and marked by loneliness.” He believes that, “If he weren’t working there that night, he’d be home alone, flipping through channels and wishing he could afford HBO and Showtime.” This portrays a sense of hopelessness and loneliness in the cashier to which the narrator relates. Despite the power differences due to race, in many ways they experience a similar powerlessness in the world. After the cashier realizes that the narrator has been joking and is not a threat, the cashier “laughed loudly then, told [the narrator] to take the Creamsicle for free. He was the graveyard-shift manager and those little demonstrations of power tickled him.” The cashier, who up until this moment had felt powerless and afraid, is able to reclaim his sense of power when he gives away the creamsicle. In this way, the power hierarchy of white above other races appears to be restored, at least in the cashier’s eyes. However, the narrator is not impressed by this display of power, and continues to be disillusioned by the hierarchies that oppress him.
The conversation between the cashier and the narrator are representative of the institutional differences of power between white people and Native Americans. The white cashier makes the racist assumption that the narrator is dangerous, and the narrator takes advantage of this assumption. In this way, the narrator claims power over the cashier. However, this power is temporary, because it is an unlikely version of this story where the narrator retains this power—he must relinquish the power when it is revealed that he is not a threat, or if he decided to hurt the cashier, he would relinquish the power when he was punished for that action. At the end the cashier symbolically gives the narrator the Creamsicle to free, a magnanimous gesture that symbolizes the return to normality.