Throughout Alexie’s novel, hope battles with despair in the lives of each member of the band and the reservation as a whole—and the Blues become a way of converting despair into something that can build, rather than destroy, community.
Hope survives, barely, in spite of sustained adversity. The story of this ragtag band of misfits is in many ways a classic underdog tale, but without the traditional happy ending. The community invests, against its better judgment, in the sort of desperate optimism that comes with forming a band—entering into a very competitive field with little hope for success, either in terms of fame or money. Thomas tirelessly drives the group forward with his optimistic belief in their potential. When, on the verge of success, they fail so completely, their failure feels expected—even inevitable. This underdog tale is mirrored in the memory of Samuel Builds-the-Fire’s basketball match against the tribal police. Against all odds, and in line with the macho Native American drive toward heroism, Samuel nearly emerged victorious, but then he too was defeated. Now he lies on the table, drunk and defeated in a deeper sense: he totally succumbs to despair.
This fatal drive toward heroism displayed by the young Samuel is typical of other male characters on the reservation, and bitterly mocked by others. The novel’s main female characters, Chess and Checkers, ascribe this drive in male Native Americans to the macho need to fit the image of the fearless Indian warrior. They are bitter about its effects on the men of the reservation, seeing this need to feign invincibility as part of what leads many to alcohol when they, inevitably, can’t live up to the impossible ideal, and then as a result face a persistent sense of unfulfilled potential. Hope against all odds is also a part of this reckless urge—so Alexie seems to argue that there should be a middle ground, somewhere between reckless hope and the other side of the equation: deep despair.
Despair pervades the past of each of the band’s members, and also threatens to invade their present. Junior ultimately gives in to despair, after the memory of his aborted child comes back to haunt him when the band is flying home from New York in defeat. Victor, in response to the death of his best friend, tries at first to rise up and respond with a heroic sort of hope, formulating a tragically inept resume to offer to David WalksAlong in the hope of taking over Junior’s job. When this resume is laughingly rejected, though, he falls back into deep despair, returning to the life of an alcoholic he had hoped to escape. Any humor and hope in Alexie’s novel is always dark. This deep awareness of despair is another link between the song lyrics written out at the beginning of each chapter of Reservation Blues and the Blues genre itself, which is famous for its themes of longing and sadness (rising as it does from a history of slavery and oppression). Music and storytelling become one way to grapple with the reality of a despair-filled life, injecting hope and personality into the equation—and perhaps discovering a path toward that “middle ground” between unrealistic hope and despair.
Hope, Despair, and the Blues ThemeTracker
Hope, Despair, and the Blues Quotes in Reservation Blues
“This is a beautiful place,” Johnson said.
“But you haven’t seen everything,” Thomas said.
“What else is there?”
Thomas thought about all the dreams that were murdered here, and the bones buried quickly just inches below the surface, all waiting to break through the foundations of those government houses built by the Department of Housing and Urban Development.
The colt shivered as the officer put his pistol between its eyes and pulled the trigger. That colt fell to the grass of the clearing, to the sidewalk outside a reservation tavern, to the cold, hard coroner’s table in a Veterans Hospital.
They did go home with Junior and Victor one night, and everybody on the reservation knew about it. Little Indian boys crept around the house and tried to peek in the windows. All of them swore they saw the white women naked, then bragged it wasn’t the first time they’d seen a naked white woman. None of them had seen a naked Indian woman, let alone a white woman. But the numbers of naked white women who had visited the Spokane Indian Reservation rapidly grew in the boys’ imaginations, as if the size of their lies proved they were warriors.
As he slept in the Warm Waters’ house, Thomas dreamed about television and hunger. In his dream, he sat, all hungry and lonely, in his house and wanted more. He turned on his little black-and-white television to watch white people live. White people owned everything: food, houses, clothes, children. Television constantly reminded Thomas of all he never owned.
Coyote Springs created a tribal music that scared and excited the white people in the audience. That music might have chased away the pilgrims five hundred years ago… The audience reached for Coyote Springs with brown and white hands that begged for more music, hope, and joy. Coyote Springs felt powerful, fell in love with the power, and courted it.
Junior and Victor shrugged their shoulders, walked into Thomas’s house, and looked for somewhere to sleep. Decorated veterans of that war between fathers and sons, Junior and Victor knew the best defense was sleep. They saw too many drunks littering the grass of the reservation; they rolled the drunks over and stole their money.
Once outside, Thomas cried. Not because he needed to be alone; not because he was afraid to cry in front of women. He just wanted his tears to be individual, not tribal. Those tribal tears collected and fermented in huge BIA barrels. Then the BIA poured those tears into beer and Pepsi cans and distributed them back onto the reservation. Thomas wanted his tears to be selfish and fresh.
“You never told us who won that game between your father and the Tribal Cops.”
“Who do you think?” Thomas asked. “Who do you think won that game?”
“I mean, I think they’re all using each other as trophies. Junior and Victor get to have beautiful white women on their arms, and Betty and Veronica get to have Indian men… Look at them. They got more Indian jewelry and junk on them than any dozen Indians. The spotlights hit the crystals on their necks and nearly blinded me once. All they talk about is Coyote this and Coyote that, sweatlodge this and sweatlodge that. They think Indians got all the answers.”
“You know,” he said, “I’ve always had a theory that you ain’t really Indian unless, at some point in your life, you didn’t want to be Indian.”
“Good theory,” Chess said. “I’m the one who told you that.”
Then the music stopped. The reservation exhaled. Those blues created memories for the Spokanes, but they refused to claim them. Those blues lit up a new road, but the Spokanes pulled out their old maps. Those blues churned up generations of anger and pain: car wrecks, suicides, murders. Those blues were ancient, aboriginal, indigenous.
“Michael,” Big Mom said, “you run around playing like you’re a warrior. You’re the first to tell an Indian he’s not being Indian enough. How do you know what that means? You need to take care of your people. Smashing your guitar over the head of a white man is just violence. And the white man has always been better at violence anyway. They’ll always be better than you at violence.”
The old Indian women dipped wooden spoons into stews and stirred and stirred. The stews made of random vegetables and commodity food, of failed dreams and predictable tears. That was the only way to measure time, to wait. Those spoons moved in slow circles. Stir, stir. The reservation waited for Coyote Springs to fall into pieces, so they could be dropped into the old women’s stews.
Victor roared against his whole life. If he could have been hooked up to a power line, he would have lit up Times Square. He had enough anger inside to guide every salmon over Grand Coulee Dam. He wanted to steal a New York cop’s horse and go on the warpath. He wanted to scalp stockbrokers and kidnap supermodels. He wanted to shoot flaming arrows into the Museum of Modern Art. He wanted to lay siege to Radio City Music Hall. Victor wanted to win. Victor wanted to get drunk.
Chess looked around the graveyard, at all the graves of Indians killed by white people’s cars, alcohol, uranium. All those Indians who had killed themselves. She saw the pine trees that surrounded the graveyard and the road that led back to the rest of the reservation. That road was dirt and gravel, had been a trail for a few centuries before. A few years from now it would be paved, paid for by one more government grant. She looked down the road and thought she saw a car, a mirage shimmering in the distance, a blonde woman and a child standing beside the car, both dressed in black.
WalksAlong didn’t respond, and Victor left the office, feeling something slip inside him. He stole five dollars from WalksAlong’s secretary’s purse and bought a six-pack of cheap beer at the Trading Post.
“Fuck it, I can do it, too,” Victor whispered to himself and opened the first can. That little explosion of the beer can opening sounded exactly like a smaller, slower version of the explosion that Junior’s rifle made on the water tower.
In the blue van, Thomas, Chess, and Checkers sang together. They were alive; they’d keep living. They sang together with the shadow horses: we are alive, we’ll keep living. Songs were waiting for them up there in the dark. Songs were waiting for them in the city.