“Your past is a skeleton walking one step behind you, and your future is a 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.” ― Sherman Alexie (Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven)
With the severity of the Native American plight, escapism is a very realistic and practical defense against misery. This is quite evident in Sherman Alexie’s The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fist Fight in Heaven. In this novel, Alexie captures an elaborate depiction of reservation life. The characters are terminally suspended in the abyss commonly known as the Spokane Indian Reservation. As Alexie catalogs their hardships, the characters of the novel indulge in the comforts of alcoholism and unbridled imagination. Through alcoholism, the character Thomas Builds-The-Fire uses the depths of his own creative mind to hide himself in the past.
There is a commonality among the reservation Indians in the novel that centers on alcoholism. The men and women of the Spokane Indian Reservation see their world largely through a thick, alcoholic haze. Drinking is a powerful defense against the stark reality that nothing ever changes on the reservation. In this state of shared depression, this familiar stupor, the reservation Indians cloak themselves in sorrow. If the characters were unable to mend their hardships in reality, through alcohol they most certainly could bend their perceptions of truth. There are several instances throughout the novel in which Alexie describes alcoholic experiences as a positive means of escape. For example, in All I Wanted To Do Was Dance, Victor looks over to his drunken parents and “Everything was familiar and welcome. Everything was beautiful” (87). The warmth of the alcoholic embrace was apparently comforting to Victor, and he goes on to say that his father would “sit with a cooler of beer beside him…his bad breath and body odor covering me like a blanket.”(26). In Every Little Hurricane, Victor depicts his father drinking in a dream; Victor describes the alcohol as “near poison” and a “reservation tsunami”, using very negative connotations. Yet, Victor also portrays his Father as being bold while drunk, with statements like “[He] wasn’t shaped like a question mark…more like an exclamation point” (6). Victor reflects in hindsight that “He thought one more beer could save the world.”(88). So, throughout the novel, Sherman Alexie perpetuates this duality of notions toward alcoholism.
Though alcohol brought release, it also leeched away the sweet vitality of the reservation Indians. In the novel, drinking only serves to ruin relationships, twist lives and magnify their difficulties. Sherman Alexie brings this reality into full view by coupling this theme with every drunken interlude. For example, “I…wished I was drunk enough to pull the trigger” (43). “I got drunk…so I wouldn’t be scared.”(112) and “With every glass of beer…he began to understand too much about fear and failure” (134). These passages indicate not only the reality of such a grim comfort but also a continually deteriorating cycle within the Spokane Indian society.
Denis Johnson’s book Jesus’ Son portrays single serving slices of what it means to be alive. According to this provocative collection of short stories, there is more to being alive than simply breathing and eating. This examination is relayed to the reader in terms of altered states of consciousness, jaded recollections and sexual fascinations.
In some of the stories, Johnson’s unnamed protagonist comes close to eloquently depicting the quintessential essence of life. Yet there are also times in the book when the main character’s outlook on life is noticeably sarcastic, morbid and morose. These odd moments of clarity are surprisingly off beat.
Although Johnson attempts a serious glance at the true meaning of being alive, the main character is often preoccupied with the trivialities of life. Characters come and go throughout the book and Johnson’s protagonist seems to regard them with little concern at all. Their lives seem to pass like a picture show before his eyes, lacking any real substance and consequence. In the story “Steady Hands at Seattle General”, the main character asks Bill if he’s still alive in the deeper, spiritual sense of the word. Bill replies that “it don’t get no deeper than the kind of shit we’re in right now.” (131). Perhaps at this point, the reader can surmise that the main character will delve further into this intellectual puzzle, but Johnson pulls back. Instead he compares the deeper sense of being alive with the stark reality of being on drugs at a hospital. Denis Johnson seems to be toying with the idea at this point. He never quite pulls the trigger.
Throughout the book, Johnson expresses a fixation on the existential triviality of being alive. This book reads more like a philosophical discussion that the reader is invited to eavesdrop on. Overall, I love the lack of rules and conventions in this book. It’s challenging and therefore, a great read. In the year 2000 the book was adapted into a movie and was brilliantly directed by Alison Maclean.
It’s been more than 10 years since I first read – The House on Mango Street by Sandra Cisneros. Yet in light of Donald Trump’s recent inflammatory comments about Mexican immigrants, I thought I’d revisit Cisneros’ punchy little novel about finding a sense of belonging. The House on Mango Street is written in an episodic style in which the author uses punchy little vignettes to illuminate the main character, a young girl named Esperanza.
Donald Trump recently issued statements saying that Mexican immigrants are mostly drug dealers and rapists. He’s gotten a mixed bag of feedback from his comments, but I think he is neglecting to recognize everyday people like Esperanza. Yes, she is a fictional character, but born out of the mind of a very real person – Sandra Cisneros. The House on Mango Street opens a window into the mind of a female Mexican immigrant growing up in America. She deals with issues that any young girl would face: an evolving sexuality, feelings of abandonment, and a desire to be free. Yet, when I talk to other readers, people seldom remember that this book is also about social responsibility. Esperanza, the child, wanted to leave Mango Street and everyone else behind. As she grows older, Esperanza identifies more with her community and wants to help sustain it. She strives to engage specifically with other women in the neighborhood to give them a sense of empowerment and support.
That doesn’t sound like Donald Trump’s vision of Mexican immigrants at all. Maybe he should revisit The House on Mango Street.