The recurring characters that make up the world of The Lone Ranger and Tonto are often in conflict with their inner selves as well as their community. We see characters again and again at several very different points throughout their life—namely Victor, who functions as a stand-in of sorts for Alexie himself—and come to understand them through several perspectives, disjointed in time, place, and point of view but nonetheless interconnected. The intensity of the focus on the self—the ever-changing self, the many-sided self—throughout the text is rivaled only by the intensity of the focus on the tribal community and its intricacies. Characters rebel against their upbringing or fall into step on the paths their parents and grandparents have already tread; they seek refuge in one another or reject one another in a chaotic but profound maelstrom of action.
In “This is What it Means to Say Phoenix, Arizona,” Victor asks himself after he is cruel to Thomas-Builds-the-Fire: “Whatever happened to the tribal ties, the sense of community? The only real thing he shared with anybody was a bottle and broken dreams.”
The sense of community that many of the characters—namely Victor—struggle with again and again is something that’s alternately desired and rejected. In “Amusements,” Victor and a woman named Sadie find an Indian man, Dirty Joe, a well known drunk, passed out at a carnival. They put him, unconscious, onto a roller coaster, and watch and laugh while he rides it again and again. In “The Only Traffic Signal on the Reservation Doesn’t Flash Red Anymore,” Victor and his friend Adrian discover a young Indian man—once a budding basketball star full of promise—in a similarly drunken state, but rather than subjecting him to violence or mockery, they care for him, and Victor allows him to stay in his home.
Life off the reservation, when glimpsed throughout these stories, is more often than not portrayed as isolating. In the collection’s final story, “Junior Polatkin’s Wild West Show,” Junior goes off to a “small Jesuit college” in Spokane. He is the only Indian there, and his experiences lead him to feel trapped between two worlds. He doesn’t go home for Christmas break because he doesn’t want to “go back to his reservations and endure the insults that would be continually hurled at him”; however, in his relationship with a white woman, with whom he fathers a child after a one-night stand, he is made to feel othered and even rejected.
Off the reservation, jobs—another kind of community—are also described as difficult or dangerous for Natives to hold. Victor is robbed during the graveyard shift at his 7-11 job; “More than that,” he says “[the robber] took the dollar bill from my wallet, pulled the basketball shoes off my feet, and left me waiting for rescue [in the cooler] between the expired milk and broken egg.” In another story, Samuel Builds-the-Fire—Thomas’s grandfather—is let go from his job as a cleaner at a hotel on his birthday.
As a meta-textual device, Alexie positions the reader—a single, isolated entity—at the feet of his vast cast of characters. At the start of each new tale, the reader must reset their perspective in order to take in the members of the tribal community with new eyes every few pages. Alexie throws the isolated reader up against this troubled, vibrant, chaotic community in order to highlight the distance, perhaps, between the reader’s experience and that of the characters—or, in some cases, the lack of that distance precisely.
Community vs. Isolation ThemeTracker
Community vs. Isolation Quotes in The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven
It’s almost like Indians can easily survive the big stuff. Mass murder, loss of language and land and rights. It’s the small things that hurt the most. The white waitress who wouldn’t take an order, Tonto, the Washington Redskins. And, just like everybody else, Indians need heroes to help them learn how to survive. But what happens when our heroes don’t even know how to pay their bills?
The fireworks were small, hardly more than a few bottle rockets and a fountain. But it was enough for two Indian boys. Years later, they would need much more.
“Wait,” Thomas yelled from his porch. “I just got to ask one favor.”
Victor stopped the pickup, leaned out the window, and shouted back. “What do you want?”
“Just one time when I’m telling a story somewhere, why don’t you stop and listen?” Thomas asked.
Victor waved his arms to let Thomas know that the deal was good. It was a fair trade, and that was all Victor had ever wanted from his whole life.
He counted his coins. Enough for a bottle of wine in the Trading Post. He walked down the hill and into the store, grabbed the bottle, paid for it with nickels and pennies, and walked into the parking lot. Victor pulled the wine from its paper bag, cracked the seal, and twisted the cap off. Jesus, he wanted to drink so much his blood could make the entire tribe numb.
Survival = Anger x Imagination. Imagination is the only weapon on the reservation.
Imagine Crazy Horse invented the atom bomb in 1876 and detonated it over Washington, D.C.; imagine Columbus landed in 1492 and some tribe or another drowned him in the ocean… Imagine every day is Independence Day. Imagine that your own shadow on the wall is a perfect door. Imagine a song stronger than penicillin. Imagine a spring with water that mends broken bones. Imagine a drum which wraps itself around your heart. Imagine a story that puts wood in the fireplace.
I picked up a basketball for the first time and made my first shot. No. I missed my first shot, missed the basket completely, and the ball landed in the dirt and sawdust, sat there just like I had sat there only minutes before. But it felt good, that ball in my hands, all those possibilities and angles. It was mathematics, geometry. It was beautiful.
These days, living alone in Spokane, I wish I lived closer to the river, to the falls where ghosts of salmon jump. I wish I could sleep. I put down my paper or book and turn off the lights, lie quietly in the dark. It may take hours, even years, for me to sleep again. There’s nothing surprising or disappointing in that. I know how all my dreams end anyway.
The television was always loud, too loud, until every emotion was measured by the half hour. We hid our faces behind masks that suggested other histories; we touched hands accidentally and our skin sparked like a personal revolution. We stared across the room at each other. We were children; we were open mouths. Open in hunger, in anger, in laughter, in prayer. Jesus, we all want to survive.
I’m always asking myself if a near-accident is an accident, if standing right next to a disaster makes you part of the disaster or just a neighbor.
Junior hung up the phone and walked down the highway toward the reservation. He wanted to imagine that he was walking off into the sunset, into a happy ending. But he knew that all along the road he traveled, there were reservation drive-ins, each showing a new and painful sequel to the first act of his life.