The primary aim of this thesis is to analyze Sherman Alexie’s short story collection The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven in relation to the theme of alcoholism among Native Americans in the twentieth century. Sherman Alexie is a contemporary Native American author who was born on the Spokane Indian Reservation. The lives of Native American people living in the area are reflected in Alexie’s works. As many of these Natives face a problem with alcohol, the situation is depicted in Alexie’s books and the subject can be fruitfully examined in the selected works.
Moreover, Alexie has experienced similar kinds of problems in his life and some of the characters’ alcohol dependence has been inspired by the writer’s former years of heavy drinking. Alexie explains the connection between the alcohol theme in his work and his drinking years in an interview with Joelle Fraser: “You are an addict – so of course you write about the thing you love most. I loved alcohol the most. That’s what I wrote about.” Alcohol has proved to be the medication for both Alexie’s and his characters’ challenging times. In Alexie’s writings, alcohol serves as a means of self-defense against the outer world. However, the attempt to escape the situation through alcohol has shown itself to be a rather short-term help and does not heal the sufferings of the examined protagonists.
In his books, Alexie paints a portrait of the Spokane Indian community and he reveals the struggles of the characters to survive in a world which does not offer many chances of a fulfilled life. As depicted in The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven, most Spokane’s deal with their misery by drinking. Alcohol consumption is very widespread among the group, as it is among Native Americans in general, and alcoholism is a frequent cause of death among contemporary Native Americans. A position paper of the Native American Health Center supports this argument: “The estimated rate of alcohol-related deaths for Native Americans as a whole is much higher than it is for the general population” (“Proposition 63”). The desperate situation of the Spokane and the help that they accept in the form of alcohol with its later effects are recurrent themes also in Alexie’s poems. The poems refer to the Spokanes’ heavy drinking and all its consequences. Alexie’s poems with alcohol themes sound like little stories and the similarities in his poems echo the concerns and life stories of his characters in the prose works. Alexie develops the problem of heavy drinking further in the books while he depicts the native people’s life experience in more detail.
As a Native American, Sherman Alexie is interested in the lives of the Natives, particularly the Spokane people. He is one of the most important contemporary Native American writers whose work is highly valued by both Native American and white critics. In 2000 Alexie received an honorary degree from Seattle University and the President of the University praised Alexie: “Raised on the Spokane Indian Reservation, you overcame a childhood of ill health and poverty. You battled your own alcoholism as well as the alcoholism of those around you and emerged to become one of our country’s most prolific and celebrated writers” (Seattle University). Alexie says about himself: “I’m a binge writer. I used to be a binge alcoholic. I’ve substituted writing for alcohol” (qtd. In Cline).
Alexie has been surrounded by alcohol dependence since his early childhood and grew up on the reservation where alcoholism, poverty and disease were not an exception (Cline). Such experience has left him with a lot to write about, and Alexie calls his literary works “little books about one little reservation in Washington State” (Seattle University). When Alexie looks at his own personal experience, he believes his father to be part of the stereotypical images of Native Americans on the reservation. In an interview with Smiley, Alexie says: “My father was a randomly employed blue collar alcoholic,” and was said to spend what little money there was on buying alcoholic drinks.
Alexie’s father drank away from home a lot and little Alexie used to lack sleep since he would stay up waiting for his father rather than fall asleep. Alexie goes on in the interview: “When my father would leave on binge drinking, he’d be gone for days or weeks. A couple of times, he was actually gone for a few months […] I wouldn’t want to go to sleep in case he came back home, so I would stay awake waiting for him.” Alexie’s father never “sobered up.” Moreover, Alexie’s mother also used to be an alcoholic. As far as his siblings and extended family are concerned, most of Alexie’s relatives are currently heavy drinkers (Interview with Smiley). Not only his family but also Alexie himself faced alcohol problems. What led him to alcoholism? Lynn Cline argues that it was the feeling of inferiority at university which made him drink heavily.
While he moved among rich white students, “Alexie [felt] like a second-class citizen” and started to drink (Cline). After he suffered from alcoholism for five years, Alexie decided to “regain his sobriety” at the age of twenty-three (Canku Ota). According to Egan, Alexie has not drunk since then. There is a certain similarity between the early adulthood of Alexie and of some characters that are to be examined in his writings. Alexie was often drunk as a young adult and some of his characters who drink heavily are young too. Researchers have shown that young people drink in an attempt to find a satisfactory way of dealing with underlying problems such as stress and anxiety (“Stress and Anxiety”).
When Alexie is asked to speak about alcoholism, he thinks that being addicted to alcohol is “a symptom of poverty, desperation, loneliness, and a way to self-medicate [and] alcohol is cheap and easy” (Interview with Smiley). Alexie says directly in his interview with Smiley that white people have been cruel to the Natives: “I’m walking around with a constant sense of the genocidal history of this country […] I’m aware that it actively tried to eliminate all of my ancestors.”
Now a closer look is taken at The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven. The works seem to be filled with heavy alcohol consumption, the problems which lead to excessive alcohol use and the effects of heavy drinking. All the main characters have had to deal with alcoholism, no matter whether they have been involved in the subject directly or indirectly. To put it in other words, there are some Native American protagonists who drink often and who are believed to be addicted to alcohol, and there are also the ones who have never drunk in their lives but have experienced excessive drinking in their home and the reservation environment.
The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven depicts just how destructive alcoholism can be and the life stories of the protagonists are proof of such sad reality. Moreover, the books show that the approximate number of desperate Native Americans who end up alcoholics is not small. When in a market in Seattle, the band Coyote Springs has a chance to see many drunk Native Americans and there are lines in Victor’s thoughts which go like this: “All Indians grow up with drunks. So many drunks on the reservation, so many” (RB 151). Indeed, Sherman Alexie also points out in an interview with Katie Curran: “Out of my uncles, aunts, mother, father, siblings, cousins – we are talking couple hundred people – two people don’t drink. And I know my experience is not atypical.”
The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven provides sufficient evidence that alcohol abuse is widespread among Native Americans. Sherman Alexie’s focus on alcoholism in order to highlight the ethnic group’s alcohol problem in relation to how he perceives it. Alexie’s picture of many Native Americans who end up addicted to alcohol is close to reality that for example James Cox also speaks about. In his article on Alexie’s fiction, Cox points out that Native American alcoholism rates are the highest in the US and alcohol related deaths and suicides are not rare among the Natives (92). The thesis shows on an analysis of Alexie’s characters that a great number of Native Americans who try to deal with their desperate lives find solace in alcohol. Alexie’s characters see alcohol as a form of escape from their daily abject misery. According to Alexie, “alcohol is the available opiate of the poor and the oppressed, for pain and anger, for defeat and despair” (qtd. in McFarland). As the word “opiate” suggests, alcohol makes people stop thinking about the problems in their lives, but the desired effect produced by alcohol is not everlasting for forgetting unpleasant experiences.
- “AA for the Native North American.” Alcoholics-Anonymous, Alcoholics Anonymous, 8 June 2008, www.alcoholics-anonymous.org/en_pdfs/p-21_AAfortheNatNAmer.pdf>.
- “Sherman Alexie.” Tavis Smiley. Tavis Smiley. 28 Jun. 2007 http://www.pbs.org/kcet/tavissmiley/archive/200704/20070427_alexie.html
- “Sherman Alexie’s Iowa Review Interview.” Joelle Fraser. Modern American Poetry. 28 Jun. 2007 .
- “Straight Talk with Filmmaker Sherman Alexie.” Katie Curran. Flagstaff Tea Party. 3. 3 (2002) 21 Nov. 2007 StraighttalkwithfilmmakerShermanAlexie.html>.
- Cline, Lynn. “About Sherman Alexie: A Profile.” Ploughshares, the Literary Journal at Emerson College. 21 Nov. 2007 .
- “Proposition 63. Position and Recommendation Paper.” Native American Health Center. 19 Jan. 2008 .
- Seattle University. “Honorary Degree.” Sherman Alexie Webpage. Seattle University. 3 Mar. 2008 .
- “Stress and Anxiety.” Health Guide.The New York Times. 17 Feb. 2008 .