The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven

The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven Summary and Analysis of "Witnesses, Secret and Not"


The 13-year-old narrator’s father gets a call from the police asking him to answer some questions about Jerry Vincent, a man who disappeared 10 years ago. The next morning, the narrator and his father travel to Spokane to speak with the Secret Witness Program. As the car skids on the ice, the narrator’s father explains that he was drinking with Jerry at the bar the night he was killed. Rumor has it that Jerry was shot behind the bar and his body was buried somewhere in a nearby park. The father tells the police this every year when they call him in for questioning.

The narrator and his father drive past Jimmy Shit Pants, an alcoholic Indian who lives in Spokane, and give him a few dollars. They stop in a diner and the narrator asks his father if he ever killed anyone. The father explains that he once caused a car accident that killed a white man, but because the other driver was drunk and he was sober, the dead man was blamed for the accident. When they arrive at the police station, the narrator waits in the car for his father, but after 30 minutes he goes in and joins him. A detective questions the narrator’s father. The narrator is nervous the entire time, but the detective eventually releases them and they go home. As they eat dinner with the rest of the family, the narrator’s father cries into his food.


“Witnesses, Secret and Not” was the final story in The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven when it was published in 1993. (Later editions added two more stories: “Flight” and “Junior Polatkin’s Wild West Show”.) It includes many thematic and narrative similarities to the collection’s first story, “Every Little Hurricane”. Both stories are related by a young narrator who does not completely understand the dark events he is observing. On a related note, both address the concept of "witnessing". According to literary scholar Michael E. Kaufman, the acts of witnessing in these stories run parallel to the Native American experience throughout history. Native Americans, he writes, “feel their failures have been imposed on them by circumstance, but...also feel responsible for their failures” (95). Acts of passive witnessing - whether it is young Victor watching his uncles fistfight or the narrator and his father witnessing Jimmy Shit Pants drink himself into oblivion - illustrate this feeling of failure and culpability. Furthermore, in this story, it is inferred that the narrator's father knows who killed Jerry Vincent, and his silence can be interpreted both as protecting one's community and the manifestation of powerlessness.

Although Alexie typically writes about characters that live on the reservation, in Jimmy Shit Pants he depicts an Indian who has moved to the outside world of Spokane. Many of Alexie’s characters aspire to move off the reservation, but like Samuel Builds-the-Fire and Junior Polatkin, Jimmy Shit Pants finds that the world outside is just as harsh, and he is even more marginalized there than he is on the reservation. The narrator and his father view Jimmy with a mixture of pity and empathy. The narrator’s father is reluctant to talk to his son about Jimmy’s choice to leave the reservation, which suggests that he has some conflicted feelings about Indians who leave. On the one hand, they open themselves to opportunities for success, but on the other, they sacrifice an important component of what it means to be Indian. This depiction is similar in spirit to Alexie’s portrayal of the Urbans in “Distances”. In that story, Indians who have moved off the reservation are weakened by an apocalyptic event that kills white people but leaves reservation Indians unharmed.