Friday, May 27, 2011

#10 - Sherman Alexie - "This Is What It Means to Say Phoenix, Arizona"

I've recently received a copy of The Best American Short Stories 1994, edited by Tobias Wolff. The great thing about these anthologies is that you're faced with a compilation of some well-known names, whose stories you have probably already read or at least heard of, along with some unfamiliar writers who you wonder after reading how you'd never come into contact with before. I am constantly on the lookout for writers that, for no other reason that a little bad luck (my bad luck) and not stumbling into the right places, have managed to steer free of my radar. If I hadn't already found Jim Shepard and Barry Hannah this anthology would have brought them to my attention (both Jim's ''Batting against Castro'' and Barry Hannah's ''Nicomedus Bluff'' were both anthologised here). But already, halfway in, I've come across two writers whose work I wish I'd found sooner and I'm sure it was always inevitable I would find at some point, as their work seems to fit within the milieu of everything I look for in good fiction, and the fiction that spurs me on, makes me wonder in awe at its execution and give myself over to it fully; both Sherman Alexie's "This Is What It Means to Say Phoenix, Arizona" and Tony Earley's ''The Prophet Of Jupiter'' have done all that.
To begin with Sherman Alexie's story; I had never read anything quite like this. As an Englishman with little real experience of living in the US - a few months in the Midwest - my own ideas about what being a Native American Indian today means was riddled with misconceptions. I really fell into this story, and it is Sherman Alexie's skill and heart in drawing the Reservation, the people, the history, the way the people live in a reservation devoid of much else but each other, it is his masterly craft that allows me to fall into a world I am otherwise so unfamiliar with. Victor is the main character, a poor young Indian whose father has just died of a heart attack in Phoenix, Arizona - and it is up to Victor, with no money and only a ride home in his deceased father's truck, to go and pick up what remains packed away in a trailer.
The story begins really when Victor meets Thomas-Builds-The-Fire, an old friend cum foe cum non-entity. Thomas-builds-the-fire is a tragic figure, a true loner, without parents, and with a penchant for telling people stories when they don't want to listen. He is also an emblem of a spiritual centre lost in the furnace of a modern reservation. But Thomas-builds-the-fire offers Victor the money he needs and reluctantly Victor agrees and they set off for Phoenix, Arizona. This is where the story goes from being an interesting story to a beautiful, fluid thing, a story that has real impact and can stand for so many things. Sherman Alexie has been accused before of getting attention and credit because he represents an under-represented culture, but this seems like a ridiculous claim to anyone who has read this story, or any of Alexie's best like ''What you pawn I shall redeem'' which you can find in the New Yorker. The effect created in this story is almost cosmic thanks to Thomas-builds-the-fire, a combination of Thomas's old world mysticism and Victor's hard boiled, hard done-by reality that smacks you round the face with its dichotomy and beauty.
On the plane on the way to Phoenix Thomas-Builds-The-Fire talks to a woman on the plane, and this great scene takes place:
"I mean, you used to be a world-class athlete?" Thomas asked.
"My husband still thinks I am."
Thomas Builds-the-Fire smiled. She was a mental gymnast, too. She pulled her leg straight up against her body so that she could've kissed her kneecap.
"I wish I could do that," Thomas said.
Victor was ready to jump out of the plane. Thomas, that crazy Indian storyteller with ratty old braids and broken teeth, was flirting with a beautiful Olympic gymnast. Nobody back home on the reservation would ever believe it.
"Well," the gymnast said. "It's easy. Try it."
Thomas grabbed at his leg and tried to pull it up into the same position as the gymnast. He couldn't even come close, which made Victor and the gymnast laugh.
"Hey," she asked. "You two are Indian, right?"
"Full-blood," Victor said.
"Not me," Thomas said. "I'm half magician on my mother's side and half clown on my father's."
Suddenly Thomas-builds-the-fire is not such a crackpot, he has a sense of humour and understands his own absurdity and his reality comes seeping out, painfully for the reader, because then for the first time we are aware of how much Thomas-builds-the-fire must be hurting himself, so pointedly aware of his own lot in life and so stoic with it at that. Victor, on the other hand, without much sympathy to begin with, slowly seems the understand the same thing. After discovering nothing much in the truck they start the long drive home, with his father's ashes in two boxes, and these scenes are some of the most touching and unforgettable - especially this scene which I can't help quoting:
'Thomas Builds-the-Fire slid behind the wheel and started off down the road. All through Nevada, Thomas and Victor had been amazed at the lack of animal life, at the absence of water, of movement.
"Where is everything?" Victor had asked more than once.
Now when Thomas was finally driving they saw the first animal, maybe the only animal in Nevada. It was a long-eared jackrabbit.
"Look," Victor yelled. "It's alive."
Thomas and Victor were busy congratulating themselves on their discovery when the jackrabbit darted out into the road and under the wheels of the pickup.
"Stop the goddamn car," Victor yelled, and Thomas did stop, backed the pickup to the dead jackrabbit.
"Oh, man, he's dead," Victor said as he looked at the squashed animal.
"Really dead."
"The only thing alive in this whole state and we just killed it."
"I don't know," Thomas said. "I think it was suicide."
Victor looked around the desert, sniffed the air, felt the emptiness and loneliness, and nodded his head.'
For me this is a scene that aches like only the best writing can, and I think the skill comes from both a deep, deep understanding of that sort of loneliness and what it takes to live with that sort of bad luck. Victor has nothing, no job, his father's ashes in the back of the truck - which was all that was left to Victor - and now the ''only thing alive in this whole state and we just killed it.'' The important word there is ''we''. Since Thomas-builds-the-fire was the one driving, and Victor had avoided everything for miles, but Victor is willing to share in the death of the rabbit and I get the feeling that before they took off together for Phoenix Victor would have not hesitated in saying ''You killed it.'' But he doesn't, the redemption here, the solace, is that they've shared all this together, the pain and the miles, the truck and the ashes, they did it together and this counts for everything. Back at the reservation things become a still-life again, a quiet, tense place bristling with a fractured sense of community, bad history, bad blood. The final words echo long after you finish reading the story:
''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.
"Just once?"
"Just once."
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. So Victor drove his father's pickup toward home while Thomas went into his house, closed the door behind him, and heard a new story come to him in the silence afterwards.''
The 'deal was good', a kind of compromise, meeting Thomas-builds-the-fire somewhere halfway, which is more than he has ever got before.


  1. Thanks, this sounds marvelous. I love good short stories and am a big Wolff fan. This collection is now on my list.

  2. Wow, that's great Mark. I haven't updated this blog for so long and I assumed nobody was reading it. You've inspired me to continue. I am a big Tobias Wolff fan too and am finishing 'Our Story Begins.' So I'm going to do the next post on the Best British Short Stories 2010, then do the Wolff collection. I've been reading a couple of other BASS collections, 2001 and 2002, but neither of them have lived up to 1994 yet. But 2002 has Jim Shepard's Love and Hydrogen, plus Richard Ford's Puppy, which I've read already and is a great example of how a straight story can get to the heart of the matter.
    P.S My name isn't Dragan, I've got stuck with someone else's moniker.

  3. I really enjoyed this story and your thoughts on it. I had to read it for an English assignment and its one of the few stories that I understood.