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.”