The collection deals with the lives and troubles of Indian in and around the Spokane Indian Reservation. The stories also deal with characters that Alexie would later revisit in his novel Reservation Blues (specifically, Thomas Builds-the-Fire, Victor, and Junior).
In a 1996 interview with Tomson Highway, Alexie explains a bit about the title of this collection:
“Kemosabe in Apache means “idiot,” as Tonto in Spanish means “idiot.” They were calling each other “idiot” all those years; and they both were, so it worked out. It’s always going to be antagonistic relationship between indigenous people and the colonial people. I think the theme of The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven is universal.”
This universal theme permeates many of Alexie’s stories here and in his other writings. The stories take a fresh, sometimes painful, look at life for modern Indians on the Spokane Reservation. Alcoholism, violence, and death all permeate this collection. At the same time, Alexie brings an extreme level of humor and compassion to these characters, making their hardships bearable to the reader.
The stories here mostly interconnect, referring to the same events or at least the same characters, creating a narrative that almost flows between stories. Exceptions to this flow include “Distances.” “Witnesses, Secret and Not” and “Jesus Christ’s Half-Brother Is Alive and Well on the Spokane Indian Reservation” also seem disconnected but remain similar in style to the rest of the collection. A follow up to The Business of Fancydancing, a collection of short stories and poems, the stories in this collection alternate between a poetic style and a more conventional prose style.
The characters in these stories have not reached “happily ever after,” it is not clear if they will ever get there. Sometimes, the characters are at fault for these failures. At other times they are victims of circumstances far beyond their control. Regardless of the reason, Alexie portrays his characters with compassion and the hope that they will one day succeed. Even Victor, a drunk continuously falling off the wagon, and Lester FallsApart (whose name might say everything) are presented with a certain dignity and afforded a degree of respect throughout the stories.
When writing about such modern problems as car wrecks and alcoholism, there is always the risk of being too serious, too tragic. In “A Good Story” Alexie acknowledges this fact when his self-proclaimed storyteller, Thomas Builds-the-Fire, goes out of his way to tell a happy story.
Other stories remain less concerned with themes discussed and instead are focused on presenting rich narratives. One favorite is “The Only Traffic Signal on the Reservation Doesn’t Flash Red Anymore” in which Victor and his friend watch reservation life from their porch while drinking Diet Pepsis. However, bar none, the best stories in this collection are the title story and “Somebody Kept Saying Powwow.” Both stories are as evocative and compelling as any novel. Furthermore, in each story Alexie creates characters that are unique, well-developed and completely absorbing–no easy feat for stories of around ten pages.
The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven does two important things. First, it illustrates Sherman Alexie’s wide range of talents as a writer. Second, it tells a lot of good stories.