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Sherman Alexie's epic 'Fistfight' turns 20

In the recently published, 20th anniversary edition of "The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven," the book that made its author a literary star at 26, Sherman Alexie recalls the division between his life on the Spokane Indian reservation in Wellpinit, Wash., and his standing in the pages of the New Yorker, the New York Times and other publications that were celebrating his arrival.

"I was called 'one of the major lyric voices of our time,'" he writes, "but at the same time I was sleeping in a U.S. Army surplus bed in the unfinished basement bedroom in my family's government-built house. The contrast between my literary and real lives was epic. Scary. Even dangerous. And it still felt epic, scary and dangerous for many years."

For longtime and even casual readers of Alexie's work, which includes 21 other books of fiction and poetry and two screenplays, the "epic" and "scary" nature of this disparity should be obvious. But "dangerous"?

"The way in which you can get corrupted," Alexie explains by phone from his office in Seattle. "The set of morals and values I had as an Indian boy can become very Western, the bad part of Western civ, the way you can end up agreeing with your colonizers, essentially letting privilege turn you into an a--hole."

Alexie, who will discuss his writing career on Tuesday, Nov. 19, at the Miami Book Fair International, says for him, the key to staving off the perverting influence of literary fame, fortune and glory is simple: Drive an old car, and drive other writers away.

"I have not lived extravagantly. I drive a '98 Camry. It's that basic," he says. "My car has 108,000 miles. I can afford whatever I want, but it's as basic as that. And with any profession like this, the best way to stay yourself is to stay out of writing circles. When you come home, you gotta make sure that your professional and home lives are very distinct. So when I get home, I hang out with the same friends I've had since college. I play basketball. I really don't have any day-to-day friends that are writers. No writers, no politicians. I think that's the rule: no writers, and no politicians."

Almost from the day "The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven" was first published, Alexie found himself at odds with certain segments of the literary community. He riled Indian writers and academics who objected to the book's warts-and-all depictions of reservation life, and irritated white novelists with his pronouncements that they have no right to include Indian characters and reservation settings in their work. Barbara Kingsolver and Larry McMurtry were favorite targets. "I'm probably a bully," Alexie admits today. "But that's still a challenge I'm going to issue: If you've never lived on the rez as an Indian, you really shouldn't be writing about it."

In 24 often-autobiographical stories set in and around the Spokane reservation, and marked with prose that welds black humor and brutal honesty, "The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven" directly confronts the devastating effects of alcoholism, poverty, racism and oppression on Indians' mental and physical health. The book also dares Indians to leave not just their reservations — which he recently told the Atlantic were created by the United States as "an act of war" and today "are really third-world, horrible banana republics" — but also to escape what the poet Adrian C. Louis described as "the reservation of my mind." As a result, Alexie's work has been pilloried almost as often as it's been praised. In 2010, the Arizona Legislature made it illegal to teach "The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven" in public schools. Meanwhile, Alexie's 2007 National Book Award-winning young adult novel, "The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian," has been removed from the reading curricula of schools across the country as recently as this August.

"When critics talk about the depiction of pain and agony in my work, they're not being literary," the author says. "They're being very specifically lower art. The history of literature is the history of pain. And frankly speaking, it's impossible to write well about happy people. Nobody's ever written a great book about happiness."

Alexie says the initial criticism of "The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven" from Indians "who think I write too much about social issues" came as no surprise. He may have been less prepared for the way the literary world attempted to define, and confine, him.

"It all comes down to this basic insecurity that an Indian's life isn't worth writing about, that an Indian's life isn't worth living," he says. "Other people place you in these corners, and you end up accepting your fate in the corner. I didn't feel that in the small press world, because that's a bunch of freaks. That feeling started when I started getting successful, and then certain critics and other writers were trying to place my success. Then, I became the Indian in the corner. Now, I'm not."

Sherman Alexie at the Miami Book Fair International

When: 8 p.m. Tuesday, Nov. 19

Where: Miami Dade College, Chapman Conference Center, 300 NE Second Ave., Miami

Cost: $15

Contact: 305-237-3258 or

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