After a fight with his wife Norma, Jimmy Many Horses tries to storm out of the house but forgets his keys. Norma grabs them first and heads to the Powwow Tavern to dance. Despite their argument, Jimmy is upset at the thought of his wife dancing with another man, but since she has taken the car, he has no way to follow her. He hitchhikes toward the tavern and his friend Simon picks him up. Simon is notorious for driving everywhere in reverse, but Jimmy accepts the ride anyway. On the way, Jimmy explains that Norma got angry with him because he joked about his own cancer diagnosis. Jimmy has many tumors inside him; his favorite, he claims, is the one that is as large as a baseball.
Simon drops Jimmy off at the tavern and he finds Norma inside. They nearly make up, but when Norma threatens to leave him if he ever makes light of his cancer again, Jimmy can’t resist getting in one last joke. She makes good on her promise and does leave him.
Jimmy has a flashback about his early relationship with Norma. They met in a bar where Jimmy was hanging out with his cousin, Raymond. Jimmy and Norma immediately realized they had much in common, and she moved in the night they met. At their wedding Raymond gave an awkward toast, reminiscing about a time Jimmy made jokes after a bloody car accident. Shortly thereafter, Raymond drunkenly objected to the wedding on the grounds that, “My cousin is dead, you know?” (162)
Three months after Norma leaves him, Jimmy jokes with his doctor when she informs him that he is dying. She laughs and they both recognize that humor helps Jimmy cope with the situation. Jimmy remembers a different situation when Norma’s mother died. He tried to make light of the way they received the news (by phone) but Norma felt he was being insensitive. On another occasion, humor helped their relationship; they enjoyed making fun of a police officer who tried to extort them by claiming they were driving recklessly. They gave him the money but mocked him for what he was doing, which defused the situation and allowed them to laugh about it later
After a few months of traveling, Norma returns. She admits that she had an affair, but left because the man was too serious and she wants to help Jimmy die. They laugh together.
In this story, Alexie explores humor as a strategy for coping with tragedy. He shows both sides of using dark humor to get through difficult situations. In Raymond’s first anecdote at Jimmy’s wedding, the story of young Jimmy’s jokes at his grandmother’s funeral shows how laughter can defuse tension and give people hope. It also helps Jimmy relate to Dr. Adams, someone with whom he does not have much in common. However, everyone becomes tense when Raymond reminds them of Jimmy’s lighthearted response to the news of ten Indians dying in a car accident. Alexie suggests that humor can be a very effective weapon against despair, but people need to be careful how they use it, because too much dark humor can dehumanize the very individuals it is supposed to help.
The tone of this story is sometimes at odds with its plot. Although “The Approximate Size of My Favorite Tumor” addresses terminal illness and a failing marriage, it also features an upbeat ending and a great deal of humor throughout. Indeed, Alexie illustrates humor’s effectiveness as a coping mechanism directly. By presenting Jimmy’s death in an optimistic, uplifting manner, Alexie downplays the tragedy and instead encourages the reader to focus on Jimmy’s reconciliation with Norma.
Norma Many Horses also appears in “Amusements” and “This Is What It Means to Say Phoenix, Arizona”. In all three stories, Alexie depicts her as a respected, benevolent matriarch. This story deepens Norma as a character by providing background that explains why she is so compassionate to others; her backstory will be developed even further in “Somebody Kept Saying Powwow”. Alexie suggests that Norma’s difficult relationship with Jimmy taught her tolerance and forgiveness.