In Smoke Signals, a modest little film by Chris Eyre and Sherman Alexie, Victor and Thomas, two men in their 20s, are taking a long-distance bus trip from Coeur d’Alene, Idaho to Phoenix, Arizona. Across the aisle, Cathy, a pretty blond played by Cynthia Geary, is stretching her legs on the seat in front of her. Curious, and impressed by her flexibility, Thomas, an eccentric nerd, strikes up a conversation. Cathy is more than willing to oblige. The reason she’s so flexible, she tells him, is that she used to be a gymnast, an alternate on the 1980 Olympic Team. She continues, complaining about how Jimmy Carter ruined her chances at fame and fortune, how she would have been just as good as Mary Lou Retton, if only she had gotten her chance. While Thomas listens attentively, Victor, a strapping jock, just scowls. If she were an ex-Olympic level athlete, he wonders, what’s she doing riding on a Greyhound. Finally, he confronts her. Well, he tells her, if you were only an alternate, you wouldn’t have gone to Moscow anyway. So why blame Jimmy Carter? Cathy, called out as a bullshit artist, and probably a straight up liar, takes her bag and moves to the other side of the bus.
“Why did you do that for?” Thomas says. “She was nice.”
Most people watching Smoke Signals are likely to think the same thing. It seems bad form for Victor to cramp Thomas’ style, especially when Thomas is so obviously a 25-year-old virgin, but Victor has his reasons. He and Thomas, both Coeur d’Alene Indians, are two losers going nowhere fast. Unemployed, without college degrees, dependent on women, the trip to Phoenix is the first time either of them has been more than 100 miles from the Coeur d’Alene Indian Reservation. Victor, who is traveling to Arizona to pick up his late father’s possessions — his father, played by the great native American actor Gary Farmer, had abandoned the family in Idaho years earlier — was only able to buy a pair of bus tickets at all because Thomas, and his mother, lent him the money. He’s an angry young man, aware that he’s got no future, and a past full of physical and emotional abuse, and he sees a reflection of himself, and Thomas, in Cathy the gymnast. Thomas, who’s as angry as Victor, but much better at hiding it, copes by by telling stories, most of which, like Cathy’s tall tale about the 1980 Olympic team, are transparent bullshit based on half-truths and flat out lies. Victor does not have a plan to get out the underclass, but he knows that bad stories, half-baked, unpublished fiction, are a drug.
Thomas, in other words, is a failed writer, a young man with the emotional need to tell stories, but neither the discipline to write them down, nor the social connections to get published. He’s living in a world of illusion. In Thomas, Sherman Alexie, a highly successful Native American novelist and short story writer, sees himself, what he might have been had he not pulled himself up by his bootstraps, gotten off the reservation, and put his thoughts down on paper. In Cathy the gymnast, Victor sees what he’s probably destined to become, a 30-something failure living on the high that comes from telling lies to people who have the need to believe them. The only way out, he recognizes, is by a harsh, uncompromising devotion to the truth. He needs to shred the veil of illusion that keeps him and his people down. What he doesn’t yet realize, however, and what he will find out in Phoenix, is that the truth about his own family is probably too much for him to bear.
Smoke signals begins with a flashback to 1976. Sherman Alexie is an early Gen-Xer like me, and the entire film is a sometimes awkward, sometimes rewarding multi-layered narrative that bounces back and forth between the middle-1970s, the early 1980s, and the late 1990s. In the flashback to 1976, the Indians on the Coeur d’Alene Reservation are celebrating the Fourth of July, aware that it’s a white man’s holiday, but enjoying the fireworks and the celebration nonetheless. Thomas and Victor are still very small children, not even toddlers. Victor’s mother is working at the grill. Thomas’ grandmother is helping her cook. Victor’s father, Arnold Joseph is drinking, probably drunk. Suddenly, Thomas’ house goes up in flames. Arnold rushes inside, snatching the infant Thomas, and lowering down from the second story window to safety. Thomas’ parents, die in the fire and Thomas, sadly, is a now an orphan, but Arnold, who showed so much courage and presence of mind, is a hero. Something about the fire, however, destroys Arnold’s sense of well being. As the 1970s come to a close, and the 1980s begin, his drinking only gets worse. He abuses his wife, and the young son, running away for days at a time, and, finally, for good. Even though the story common to so many Native Americans, poverty, alcoholism, and spousal abuse, would seem to explain Arnold Joseph’s eventual breakdown, something about it doesn’t seem to fit. Arnold Joseph was not a heavy drinker before the fire. Is it survivor’s guilt? Victor, who never touches alcohol, grows up blaming himself. Was it something he did?
When Victor and Thomas reach Phoenix, they find out that Arnold Joseph had become close to Suzy Song, a young native American woman. Arnold’s death has so upset her that for the past several days, she’s been AWOL from her job as a hospital administrator. Victor and Thomas never find out whether or not Arnold and Suzy had been lovers, but what they do find out is that Arnold, like Thomas, liked to tell stories. In fact, all Arnold ever did was talk about his son Victor, the boy he had abandoned in Idaho. Victor, who can hardly bear the news that his father abused and abandoned but still loved him, accuses Suzy of lying. You never knew my father at all, he declares, but Suzy, in an angry outburst, lets him know that she probably knew Arnold Joseph better than he did, that he told her what had really happened that Fourth of July all those years ago back in 1976.
At first, Victor has no way of knowing if Suzy is telling her the truth. Perhaps she’s lying. Perhaps Arnold Joseph was lying to her, but early the next morning, Victor starts up his father’s truck, grabs Thomas, and the two men leave Suzy without saying goodbye. On the way back to the Coeur d’Alene Indian Reservation, they argue. Thomas tells Victor that Suzy was telling the truth, that he knew all along about who really started the fire that killed his parents. Their discussion so heated, with Thomas showing more and more ability to stand up to Victor, that it only ends when they run into another car that has skidded off the road onto the shoulder.
Victor, like his father, becomes something in between a hero and a scapegoat. He might have been able to avoid the car crash if he had been paying closer attention, but legally it was the other driver’s fault, and he did have the presence of mind to run and get an ambulance for a badly injured passenger. Victor and Thomas end up back on the Coeur d’Alene Indian Reservation, and their lives pick up exactly the way they were before the long bus trip. That absolutely nothing is resolved make the last 20 minutes of Smoke Signals both frustrating, and yet somehow expressive of the truth about life on the reservation. Victor has found out something he has always half suspected. Thomas has added another story to his collection of unpublished and half-baked narratives. That’s about it. While fiction can be liberating, Sherman Alexie seems to be saying, it’s usually just another form of self-medication through illusion.