THE LONE RANGER AND TONTO FISTFIGHT IN HEAVEN by Sherman Alexie (Atlantic Monthly Press: $21; 240 pp.) The imagination soars, unconquerable; the spirits inhabit every cloud, every blade of grass, every dream and story; but in real time, life on the Spokane Reservation is dismal. "At the halfway point of every drunken night," writes Sherman Alexie, "there is a moment when an Indian realizes he cannot turn back toward tradition and that he has no map to guide him toward the future."

Nonetheless, humor beams through the pervasive anomie in these tales--sketches, really--of reservation life. A wife leaves her husband ("adjusted her dreams, pulled on her braids for a jumpstart") not because he has cancer but because he insists on joking about it. A tribe stages the Thirteenth Annual All-Indian Burial Grounds Fire; conflagrations mean jobs helping the firemen. In the main, though, idleness fosters dreams--dreams of dynamiting Mount Rushmore, of stealing horses and galloping across the plain, dreams of "watching all the ships returning to Europe"--and languor leads to liquor. The reservation basketball star is a drunk before he's 15. Another boy, "formed by my father's whiskey sperm (and) my mother's vodka egg," is born "a goofy reservation mixed drink." As Alexie, a Spokane/Coeur d'Alene Indian, observes, "Nobody on the reservation is ever a child."

Underneath these deceptively spare, simple tales of everyday life there is mythic power. Ancestors are as real as cracks in the wall, reminders of a proud past unencumbered by what passes for "progress." The earth is our grandmother, says one of Alexie's tribe, technology has become our mother, "and they both hate each other."

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