In Sherman Alexie’s The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven (1993), Alexie tells several different fictional stories that discuss different aspects of life on an Indian Reservation. One chapter, titled “The Approximate Size of My Favorite Tumor,” gives the perspective of how a man named Jimmy One-Horse deals with bad news about cancer through excessive hilarity and satire. At first glance, Jimmy seems to just be a lighthearted person, yet upon further analysis, it is obvious that this constant absurdity comes not from a joyful heart but from a burdened soul that uses humor as a coping mechanism for the pains it faces.
When Jimmy first tries to tell his wife about his cancer, he uses an amusing metaphor that his tumors are so similar to baseballs that he should go down to the Hall of Fame and pin them up for the world to see (157). Then on another occasion, he is pulled over by a white police officer and threatened for doing nothing wrong. Instead of trying to handle things in a serious matter, Jimmy begins to make fun of the officer by saying that he can’t wait to send a letter to his commanding officer about how the policeman was “legal as an eagle” when it was obvious the policeman was accusing Jimmy on the basis of his Indian features (166). In each circumstance, it is evident that Jimmy doesn’t do these things because he is trying to be amusing, but rather that humor is the only thing that makes the blatant racism and horrible cancers of life bearable. At one point he even admits, “Humor was an antiseptic that cleaned the deepest of personal wounds” (164). Jimmy’s constant use of comedy reveals that he is utterly incapable of truly dealing with and talking about the major life issues he is faced with and that all these jokes come from a heavy heart. His end goal is ultimately not to be fun, but to numb the pain that life has presented to him.
The inability to face pain is a common theme across literature and it manifests itself in many different ways. One example is in the memoir The Glass Castle (2005) by Jeannette Walls. In the text, Walls’ father Rex struggles deeply with alcoholism that comes from a place of deep hurt and pain. Not only was Rex frequently molested as a child, but he is also largely incapable of providing for his family (Walls, 2015). Much like Jimmy, Rex has abandoned the idea of facing the issues that plague his existence and instead tries to drown out the voices as a means to survive through life rather than live it to the full. Alcohol has transitioned away from something that is used for pleasure and towards something that is needed to weather a haunted pass and a destitute present. Alcohol, like humor for Jimmy, has become his only means of surviving the broken world he is faced with on a daily basis.
Rex and Jimmy are parallel in how they deal with the tribulations they are faced with: both turn to things that aren’t entirely wrong at their core but are made perverse by excessive use and dependence, both of their addictions have harmed familial relationships, and both have decided to give up on life and have chosen to reside in a place of coping until death finally takes them.
“The Approximate Size of My Favorite Tumor.” The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fist Fight in Heaven, by Sherman Alexie, Grove Press, 1993, pp. 154–170.
Walls, Jeannette. The Glass Castle: A Memoir. New York: Scribner, 2005. Print.