By Heart is a series in which authors share and discuss their all-time favorite passages in literature.
In 1993, when Publishers Weekly previewed Sherman Alexie’s short story collection The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven, the author was “primarily known as a poet.” Things change in 20 years. Today, Alexie is celebrated for his acclaimed novels, stories, and collections of both poetry and fiction, screenplays and film work, and a National Book Award-winning young-adult novel. He helms a killer Twitter feed. He’s an indispensable and versatile American voice.
But in an interview for this series, Alexie confessed that his writing career very nearly never happened. For Alexie, a Spokane/Coeur d'Alene Indian who grew up destitute, literary dreams were more than beyond reach—it never occurred to him that a reservation Indian could speak out and be heard. A chance encounter with a poem by Adrian C. Louis gave Alexie the life-altering license to sit down, put pen to paper, and write out all he knew.
Lone Ranger’s initial reception was sensational—the book won the Pen/Hemingway Award for best first fiction, and the Chicago Tribune likened its publication to the culture-shattering arrival of Richard Wright’s Native Son. Now a celebratory 20th-anniversary edition, issued this fall by Grove Press, makes it clear why the collection has become a cherished classic. Alexie’s steely portrait of reservation life centers on Victor, a hard-drinking, listless former basketball star haunted by two missed free throws that cost his team a championship. His friend and tagalong is Thomas-Builds-the-Fire, a long-winded would-be bard whose cryptic parables elicit groans and put-downs, and who eventually falls silent. In its balance of plaintive lyricism and pained, wry humor, Lone Ranger remains a timeless examination of the many chains that bind each human person, and the stories we tell to survive.
Alexie spoke to me by phone. After our conversation, I scoured the internet for versions of Adrian's poem, but could only find isolated quotations in scholarly papers. I reached out to the poet, who graciously sent a copy of the poem for us to republish. At the bottom of this post is Louis's "Elegy for the Forgotten Oldsmobile," appearing online in full for the first time.
Sherman Alexie: In 1987, I dropped out of Gonzaga and followed a high school girlfriend to Washington State University (it's called Wazoo). And by complete chance, I enrolled in a poetry workshop that changed my life. On the first day, the teacher, Alex Kuo, gave me an anthology of contemporary Native poetry called Songs from this Earth on Turtle’s Back. There were poems by Adrian C. Louis, a Paiute Indian, and one in particular called “Elegy for the Forgotten Oldsmobile.” If I hadn’t found this poem, I don’t think I ever would have found my way as a writer. I would have been a high school English teacher who coached basketball. My life would have taken a completely different path.
This was the first line of the poem:
Oh, Uncle Adrian, I’m in the reservation of my mind.
I’d thought about medicine. I’d thought about law. I’d thought about business. But that line made me want to drop everything and be a poet. It was that earth-shaking. I was a reservation Indian. I had no options. Being a writer wasn’t anywhere near the menu. So, it wasn’t a lightning bolt—it was an atomic bomb. I read it and thought, “This is what I want to do.”
The line captured that sense of being tribal, being from a reservation—and the fact that you could never leave. I was the first person in my family ever to go to college, leaving the reservation, leaving my tribe, feeling excited about going but also feeling like I’d betrayed the tribe. And knowing that no matter where I ended up, or what I did, I would always be there. Some large part of me would always be there, on the reservation.
At the same time, I’d never seen myself in a work of literature. I loved books, always, but I didn’t know Indians wrote books or poems. And then to see myself so fully understood in one line of a poem, as though that one line of a poem written by someone else was my autobiography ... It was like understanding human language for the first time. It was like hearing the first words ever spoken by a human being, and understanding for the first time the immense communicative power of language.
I had never intellectualized this feeling that I’d had my entire life. And then, to hear the thing aloud. To see it in print. These are the kind of emotions that nobody puts words to, at least not where I’m from. So an intellectual and emotional awakening were fused in this one line. They came together and slapped me upside the head.
I’d written stuff before, but it was always modeled after greeting cards or the standard suspects: Joyce Kilmer, a Keats poem. The classics that every high school kid reads. But as soon as I saw that poem, I knew I could write about myself—my emotional state, the narrative of my emotional life. When I wrote before, I was always wearing a mask—I always adopted a pose. I was always putting on a white guy mask. And all of a sudden, I could actually use my real face.
Immediately, I started writing poems. The poems I wrote were about things that actually happened. I didn’t think an Indian’s life was important enough to write about until Louis gave me permission to do it. My first poem was called “Good Times," after a Lucille Clifton poem. My poem's original title was “In the HUD House,” but I changed it later. It’s in my first book, The Business of Fancydancing, and it’s probably the only one I still have memorized.
Bang. It was right there. It was waiting for me. People talk about “that moment when you just know”—I don’t think that many people actually have that moment. But I did. And from then on, there was never a Plan B.
I started publishing with the micro-presses, 26 years ago. I was published in journals that were photocopied and hand-stapled. With print runs of a hundred or less. With names like Tray Full of Lab Mice and Giants Play Well in the Drizzle. I was finding acceptance in those kinds of journals: None of the other Indian writers had really ever sent them anything. So when this Indian voice, which they’d never heard before, came in by mail—well, I got published quickly in those journals. The first five or six submissions I sent out were accepted. I ended up in the journals with Bukowski a lot. It was those kinds of places. There was a similar ring to our work—his was much rowdier, but it was the same notion of a desperate life.