It is three in the morning when the narrator goes to 7-11 to buy a Creamsicle. As the narrator enters the store, the cashier becomes visibly uncomfortable. Although the narrator knows the cashier is frightened of him because of his dark skin, he understands the man’s apprehension because he once worked the graveyard shift at a 7-11 and was robbed himself. He teases the cashier as he checks out, playing on the man’s fear, but the cashier catches on, laughs, and gives him the Creamsicle for free.
The narrator is living in Seattle with a white girlfriend. He and his girlfriend fight constantly. After a particularly bad fight, the narrator dreams that he and his girlfriend are an Indian chief and a missionary’s wife, respectively, and their romance starts a war between Native Americans and white people. The next day, he breaks up with her and moves back to the reservation. Because the narrator attended college, his mother is disappointed that he has not found a job, and constantly nags him to do so.
While the narrator was away at school, a young white man moved to the reservation because his father was the chief of the Bureau of Indian Affairs. The BIA chief’s son is extremely good at basketball. After losing a game to him, the narrator finds a job and moves to Spokane. One day, his old girlfriend calls him. They forgive each other for their fights, although it is unclear whether they will get back together. The story ends with the narrator alone and depressed.
“The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven” contains numerous callbacks to other stories in the collection. The story about the narrator being robbed at a 7-11 also appears in “Imagining the Reservation”, which suggests that they are narrated by the same character. When the narrator defuses the tension between himself and the cashier through humor, his attitude is similar to that of James Many Horses, who manages to laugh off an instance of racism in “The Approximate Size of My Favorite Tumor”. In both stories, Alexie emphasizes the potency of humor as a tool to cope with obstacles that would otherwise be insurmountable, like racism or cancer.
Alexie also conveys the Native American experience by referring to American popular culture. The story’s title and the discussion of Tonto in the text are the most prominent examples. The Lone Ranger and Tonto can be considered symbols of white American and Native American identity, respectively. Although the two characters are traditionally portrayed working together, Alexie envisions them at odds. The fact that he imagines them resolving their conflict through a fistfight is significant; often, one-on-one fistfights are used to resolve longstanding differences. Indeed, there are numerous examples of this in the collection; this kind of fistfight appears in “Witnesses, Secret and Not”, between Victor's uncles in "Every Little Hurricane", and in Thomas and Victor’s fight in “This Is What It Means to Say Phoenix, Arizona”. By having the Lone Ranger and Tonto fight in this way, Alexie alludes to the centuries of historical context that inform interactions between Native Americans and white Americans; they are finally "taking things outside". On a related note, the scholar Nina Rothberg observes that the conflict between the Lone Ranger and Tonto symbolizes the encroachment of white culture onto the reservation. “The Indian reservation,” she writes, “feels the force of white capital culture pressing upon his culture, with its TV imagery and junk food infiltrating the reservation both physically and mentally” (67).
Alexie also emphasizes that the character of Tonto is itself a tool of racial oppression. The Lone Ranger’s quiet sidekick, Tonto speaks broken English and has a spiritual connection with nature, playing into dated stereotypes about Native Americans. Although the character peaked in popularity in the 1950s, the narrator’s visceral memory of being hurt by the portrayal of Tonto suggests that such depictions can maintain their influence for decades.
In addition to its preoccupation with the Lone Ranger, this story also refers to another important work in American culture. There is a subtle allusion to the title of William Faulkner’s 1930 novel As I Lay Dying (186). Like Alexie, Faulkner also used many different perspectives in his fiction; As I Lay Dying is an especially notable example of this technique as it is narrated by 15 different characters. Faulkner may have also influenced Alexie’s portrayal of a community striving to overcome its tragic history. As I Lay Dying, along with many of Faulkner’s other novels, addresses characters living in the American South in the Reconstruction era that must come to terms with the reduced circumstances of their families and their community. Alexie's work in this story both echoes and comments on works of culture that influenced it.