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An Examination of Sherman Alexie's Pinball Essay
Setting the Scene and Introducing Characters
The recent introduction of Notes to Substack has allowed me to meet a lot of new authors and thereby discover many wonderful newsletters that I had never before encountered. I first encounteredbecause he made an off-hand reference to a TV show that we both enjoyed. We traded quips and made jokey references to the show. It was a brief, but pleasant interaction.
My chance meeting with him made me curious about the type of content he posted in his newsletter. So, I clicked on his profile and read his most recent post. That post caused me to hit the subscribe button because the man can write.
This was the post that I read. It’s very short and I encourage all of you to go read it right now. He also offers an audio version where he narrates the piece. The audio contains a tiny bit of extra content that isn’t present in the text post.
The traits I love most about good authors is their ability to set up a scene and introduce new characters. It’s why I enjoy Stephen King’s books. He is able to present characters in a way that causes me to identify with them. His approach differs greatly from George R. R. Martin’s techniques. GRRM makes me empathize with his characters and their motives. King causes me to identify similarities between them and myself. Both approaches result in a type of sympathy between me, as a reader, and that fictional protagonist.
Sherman Alexie does the same thing with only 224 words. With a concision that I find amazing, he introduces a grudge, hints at some type of future retribution, and makes a passing reference to a past tragedy that haunted the life of Tommy Runner and altered his behavior in a way so that he became the villain to the point-of-view character.
How does he do that? I really want to know. With that in mind, I’ve spent some time thinking about how he accomplished so much with so few words.
I do want to say up front that what follows is me learning in public. I’m very much trying to examine this piece and learn from his techniques. I’m not trying to lecture anyone or present myself as a master of the craft. This is me trying to learn, and I’m inviting you to come along for the ride.
Let’s dig in.
His first paragraph establishes the scene and does so by pointing out something unexpected and humorous, i.e. a Wild West pinball machine in the heart of an Indian Reservation. The story takes place in 1976, so you can imagine the type of artwork on that machine.
It’s an unexpected juxtaposition. That provides some humor because, as Sherman points out, it’s not where you’d expect a pinball machine like that to be located. It also creates some sympathy for the kids who have to look at pictures of cowboys who were no doubt presented as heroic, but most of all, it sets the stage for the character who will become the antagonist.
Enter Tommy Runner. This kid doesn’t care about the theme of the pinball machine. He just wants to play the game. More than that, he’s good at it. One of the best—if not the best—on the entire reservation.
The third, fourth, and fifth paragraphs are dedicated to building up and displaying that Tommy Runner is mean. He slaps the point-of-view character for no reason. This is especially egregious because Junior probably looked up and admired Tommy.
And when I said, "What?" he slapped the bottom of my chin and made me bite my tongue.
A character has to do something villainous before the readers will see them as a villain. This is the moment in the story where Tommy Runner becomes the antagonist.
The sentences that follow show Junior’s reaction to being slapped. He’s hurt, embarrassed, and angry, but as a reader, I feel that all of those emotions are justified because of how Sherman Alexie led up to that moment.
The essay is rapidly approaching its end, but there is one more step that Sherman takes before bringing the story to a close. He shows that the point-of-view character has released his anger. Now, he looks back on the doomed life of Tommy Runner with compassion and a desire to understand.
But now, as an adult, I know that every piece of anger has a creation story. So when I think about cruel and doomed Tommy Runner, I wonder which adult hurt him first and taught him how to hurt the rest of us.
The last paragraph of this story contains some truly beautiful prose and leaves us with a question that all of us should consider as we interact with others.
Did someone hurt this person? Is that why they are so angry?
It seems like this piece is complete. Apparently, it was an exercise in writing. I don’t know if Sherman will ever take it beyond this, but I feel we could easily be looking at the opening paragraphs of a novel. I hope we are because I’d like to find out what happened to Tommy Runner.