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Shaun Wrinn

“Sherman Alexie’s Humor”

The tragedy of life is not in death—death is inevitable, unchangeable, and

continually encroaching upon us. The tragedy of life is in man’s reaction to adversity.

Too often in life, man lies down and accepts the world as it is, refusing to do anything to

better himself or the world he lives in. Man’s predetermined prostration before life’s

adversities is the truest tragedy in our world. Bill Cosby once said, “Through humor, you

can soften some of the worst blows that life delivers. And once you find laughter, no

matter how painful your situation might be, you can survive it.” Using humor, man can

stand up to life—no longer lying down in front of the ever-charging freight train that is

life. Native Americans have long been thrown down on the tracks of life and have

repeatedly stood up again to survive and prosper. Sherman Alexie, a noted Native

American author, has used humor and his own life experiences as stepping stones to tell

the world of his peoples’ plight. In “The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven”

and “The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian”, Alexie uses these tools as a

means of discovering characters’ resilience while drawing the reader into the world of a

Native American—a world of hurt and scorn. Alexie’s humor and lightheartedness
provides a contrast to the seemingly dark and tragic lives of his characters while his own

experience lends credibility to his writings.

Alexie, a Native American born and raised on the Spokane Indian Reservation in

Wellpinit, WA, includes many of his own life experiences in his stories (Fallsapart.com).

Born with water on his brain, Alexie underwent a life threatening surgery and was

predicted to be severely mentally retarded throughout his life. The main character of

“The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian”, Arnold Spirit Jr., is based largely

upon Alexie’s life. Arnold, called “Junior” throughout the reservation, ostracizes himself

from the reservation by deciding to attend the all-white high school twenty-two miles

away. Junior loses his best friend and is largely alone throughout his experience. By

drawing many comical cartoons, Junior relieves his stress and finds a way to cope with

his loneliness. The drawings, for Junior, are the only means of self expression that a

young, lonely, and awkward boy can muster.

Junior is shunned by his tribe once he leaves the reservation. Alexie is, again, not

unlike Junior in this respect. Alexie said of himself once, “I was a divisive presence on

the reservation when I was 7. I was a weird, eccentric, very arrogant little boy. The

writing doesn't change anybody's opinion of me. If anything, it's intensified it”

(Coloumbe). The irony of this treatment is that Alexie is being shunned by a people who

are largely ignored by the rest of civilization. By providing an example of the Native

American people acting like the “White Man”, Alexie is subtly attacking his own people

for their ignorance.

Throughout “The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian”, Junior breaks

into raucous laughter at moments that wouldn’t seem appropriate. In one instance his
laughter resonates throughout the gym when Junior returns to play the reservation’s high

school basketball team. The entire reservation refuses to acknowledge Junior. As the

silence descends upon the gym, Junior begins to laugh hysterically. Junior uses his

laughter as an escape from the moment and reality. His laughter throws a barrier between

himself and those who despise and shun him; it is a coping mechanism that borders on

denial (Coloumbe). Junior believes that if he denies the reservation’s rejection of him, he

can somehow dull the pain of it.

Throughout “The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven”, Alexie uses his

own experiences and sense of humor to gain credibility with the reader and allow himself

an avenue to point out the harsh life of a Native American. In the story, “A Drug Called

Tradition”, someone asks Thomas Builds-the-Fire why his refrigerator is always empty.

Thomas walks to the fridge, sits inside and answers, “There. It ain’t empty no more”

(Alexie 12). Thomas has just been paid for allowing power poles to be placed on his

land. Instead of spending the money on food, Thomas decides to spend the money on

beer—he is going to throw a party for the reservation. Thomas’ comedic response is

Alexie’s method of showing the continual downward spiral of the tradition and culture of

the Native Americans. Thomas is paid to give away part of his land; something that

Native Americans hold more closely to their hearts than almost anything else. His newly

pocketed blood money is then used to buy something (alcohol) that only furthers his

people from their previous culture. Alexie uses a single joke to convey the sense that his

entire culture is in complete disarray. His humor sheds light upon the plight of his people

—they are poor, lack self control, and have little hope ahead of them.
In the story, “The Approximate Size of My Favorite Tumor”, Jimmy Many Horses

is diagnosed with cancer and reacts as he has with everything in his life—with a joke. At

the beginning of the story, his wife, Norma, is leaving because Jimmy has been joking

about his impending demise and she is unable to deal with it. Jimmy chases her down at

the Powwow Tavern and she threatens to leave him if he ever says something funny

again. Jimmy responds by saying, “I lost my smile briefly, reached across the table to

hold her hand, and said something incredibly funny. It was maybe the best one-liner I

had ever uttered” (Alexie 159). Norma promptly stands up and leaves Jimmy. Jimmy,

much like Junior, uses his humor as a way to escape the reality of his own death and

Norma can’t stand to do that. Her reality is that Jimmy is dying and she’s going to be left

alone. The jokes, while helping Jimmy, are a constant reminder to Norma of what is

actually happening—her husband is dying—and she can’t bear that weight.

Norma eventually returns and ,when asked why she returned, says, “Because he

[the man she was staying with] was so fucking serious about everything…and maybe

because making fry bread and helping people die are the last two things Indians are good

at” (Alexie 170). Humor and death bring Jimmy and Norma back together again

(Columbe). The laughter and jokes had always been collaborative between Jimmy and

Norma and Norma feels Jimmy’s death should be a collaborative effort too. The

complete finality of death dawns on Norma and allows her to put aside her anxiety over

Jimmy’s death and go home. The humor brings together two divisive, stubborn forces

and allows for a common ground—Jimmy can still joke while Norma can still worry.

The humor detracts from the constant dread of death. Jimmy and Norma find the delicate

balance between the two within the other person.


Alexie tells the reader that “humor is the antiseptic that cleaned the deepest of

personal wounds” (Alexie 164). Humor acts as a cleansing agent for the slings and

arrows that are constantly thrown at Native Americans, both fictional and non-fictional.

Alexie’s use of humor brings the reader closer to understanding the intricacies and

obstacles a Native American faces throughout his life. In “The Absolutely True Diary of

a Part-Time Indian” and “The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven”, Alexie uses

his humor as a means of familiarizing the reader with the characters only to later use the

characters and their humor to raise awareness of the issues facing Native Americans. By

continually approaching the reader as a friend, Alexie endears himself and his people to

the reader. This allows the reader to empathize with Alexie’s characters, Native

Americans, and (ultimately) Alexie.