Summary: In Like a Lion

Junior becomes a Freshman starter on Reardan’s varsity basketball team. He’s not big or fast, but he can shoot. Junior throws up before every game, but Coach says it’s okay and that he used to be a “yucker” too. After Reardan’s loss to Wellpinit, Reardan wins twelve games in a row before hosting Wellpinit for a rematch in Reardan. Reardan’s record is 12 and 1, and Wellpinit is undefeated. A local news crew comes out to interview Junior before the game. The reporter asks Junior how it feels to play against his former teammates, and Junior says it’s “weird.” The reporter asks Junior to be more specific, but Junior is suspicious. He doesn’t play along. Finally, after the reporter calls him an asshole, Junior gives a more detailed response. Junior says it’s the most important night of his life, that he has to prove himself to everyone. Two thousand fans come to the Reardan gym. Coach calls Junior Reardan’s secret weapon and assigns him to guard Rowdy.

Reardan wins the tip off, but Rowdy steals the ball from Reardan’s point guard, and, with Junior guarding him, goes up for a dunk. Junior has a burst of adrenaline, jumps higher than he ever has before, and takes the ball from Rowdy above the rim. Junior dribbles down court and pulls up at the three-point line. He fakes, and Rowdy jumps. Then Junior drains a three-pointer. The crowd explodes. Junior’s mom and dad weep with joy. It is the only shot Junior takes all night, but Junior holds Rowdy to just four points, and Reardan wins the game by forty. Junior celebrates at the buzzer, but then he has a realization. Reardan is Goliath to Wellpinit’s David. Reardan has all the advantages and is expected to win. Junior thinks how some of the kids on Wellpinit didn’t have breakfast, how one player’s dad deals drugs, and how Rowdy’s dad will beat him for losing. Junior runs to the locker room and cries tears of shame. Wellpinit’s season falls apart after their loss to Reardan. Reardan wins the rest of its regular season games, but is upset by a small town team early in the state playoffs.

Summary: Rowdy and I have Long and Serious Discussion About Basketball

Junior writes Rowdy an e-mail apologizing for beating Wellpinit so bad and ruining their season. Rowdy says they’ll kick Reardan’s ass the next year and Junior will cry like the faggot he is. Junior says he’s the faggot who won, and Rowdy sends back the message “Ha-ha.” Junior says the exchange may just sound like homophobic insults, but he’s happy because it is the first time Rowdy has really talked to him since he left the rez.

Summary: Because Russian Guys Are Not Always Geniuses

Junior says that at the age of fourteen he has already been to forty-two funerals. The white kids he knows can count the funerals they’ve been to on one hand. Junior says that Tolstoy is wrong when he says unhappy families are all unique. All Indian families are unhappy for the same reason, Junior says, because of alcohol. Junior is in chemistry when his guidance counselor, Miss Warren, comes to the door. She asks to see Junior. In the hall, Miss Warren starts crying and hugs Junior tightly. Junior gets an erection. Then Miss Warren tells Junior that Mary has died. Junior asks how, and when Miss Warren won’t say he knows her death was awful. Junior is upset. He runs outside to wait for his father in the snow. As he waits, Junior imagines that his dad has died to on his way to pick him up. Junior’s dad arrives and Junior is so relieved he starts laughing. Junior get in the car, but he can’t stop laughing.

Through his laughter, Junior asks how Mary died. Junior’s dad says that she and her husband had a big party. They got really drunk and fell asleep. One of the guests started to cook some soup on a hot plate but forgot about it and the trailer burned down. Junior laughs so hard he throws up a little bit. His vomit tastes like cantaloupe. He hates cantaloupe but Mary loved it. Then, suddenly, Junior falls asleep. He dreams about a how he ate a lot of cantaloupe once as a boy and got stung by a wasp, and he wakes up. At home, Junior’s mom makes him promise he will never drink. During the burial, Junior becomes overwhelmed and runs into the woods. He runs straight into Rowdy, who is watching it in secret. Rowdy is crying. Junior points out Rowdy’s tears, and Rowdy tries to punch him but misses. Rowdy tells Junior he killed Mary, that she left the rez because he did. The day after the burial, Junior goes to school. He doesn’t want to be at a wake where people are getting drunk. All the kids at Reardan show Junior affection. Penelope cries in sympathy.

Analysis

Parallax is the term used in chemistry to describe when different measurements are registered because they have been recorded from different positions. The volume of liquid in a container, for example, seems different if you view it from below or from above. Day-to-day, Junior experiences a kind of emotional parallax. In Wellpinit he sees the world from below, and, in Reardan, he sees it from above. It is not just Junior’s impressions that change depending on the perspective from which he registers them, but he discovers new abilities too. In other words, Junior doesn’t just feel like a better basketball player in Reardan—he is one. Coach changes Junior’s sense of perspective and makes Junior more confident. First, Coach encourages Junior to put a neutral spin on his tendency to throw up before games, something others might use to characterize Junior as afraid or cowardly. Coach also helps Junior to see himself as a winner and a crucial part of his team, rather than as a loser and an outsider. Coach’s ideas can be boiled down to the cliché “mind over matter.”

Read more about basketball and competition as motifs.

Junior seems to put some stock in this cliché. He often encourages others to see the world in a positive light, but the “In Like a Lion” chapter also shows how Junior’s changes in perspective, in addition to allowing him to accomplish things he had previously thought impossible (like blocking Rowdy’s dunk) also come with a momentary blindness. Junior forgets that, for most of his life, Reardan has been the enemy, the favorite, the team with all the resources, advantages, and encouragement, and that Wellpinit is the underdog, the team that always loses. After Reardan’s victory, then, Junior experiences a second change in perspective, one that fills him with pain and guilt. In this way Junior’s basketball victory comes to feel like a personal, moral defeat. In addition to “mind over matter,” Junior believes in karma. He thinks that Reardan was upset early in the playoffs for having ruined Wellpinit’s season. In the end, Junior’s somewhat simplified outlook on these complex situations can be seen as a necessary shortcut, a method he uses to avoid getting too bogged down by the irresolvable difficulties of life.

Read more about the evolution of Junior’s attitudes about race.

Junior treats many of his interactions with Rowdy with a healthy dose of irony. He describes their email discussion as “long and serious,” for example, when it is short and full of surface-level and offensive insults. Junior’s struggle to navigate his rocky friendship with Rowdy leads him into some moral inconsistencies. He speaks out against homophobia in many places in the novel, including when he condemns the homophobic insults of Rowdy’s father on Thanksgiving, but Junior also participates in homophobia by reciprocating Rowdy’s hateful language. Here, Junior attempts to relate to Rowdy and re-establish their friendship by deflecting Rowdy’s own misplaced homophobia, but he also entices Rowdy’s response. Despite the exchange of insults, Junior and Rowdy’s conversation, though brief, can be seen as very serious. The whole future of their friendship depends upon it. Beneath the surface jibes, much more is being said. Junior is appealing to Rowdy to start healing their friendship, and Rowdy, finally, acknowledges that he is ready to begin that process.

Read more about the public reaction to the homophobic slurs in the book.

The “Russian guy” Junior refers to in the title of the “Because Russian Guys Are Not Always Geniuses” chapter of the novel is Leo Tolstoy, the author of the famous realist novels War and Peace and Anna Karenina. The first sentence of the latter is, “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” In disagreeing with Tolstoy, Junior reveals that his early maturity is not just the result of dealing with many deaths at such a young age, he is also reading advanced books. Though Junior has often mentioned the individual problems caused by alcohol—Junior’s Dad’s absence, Eugene and Junior’s grandmother’s deaths—for the first time, Junior addresses the problem of alcoholism in the Spokane community in general. Alcoholism is a totalizing force. It makes all the members of the families on the Spokane reservation unhappy, and it makes them all unhappy in roughly the same way. Junior’s precocity—his early maturity—make him, in many ways, better equipped to deal with the news of his sister’s death even than the school guidance counselor, Miss Warren.

Read an important quote about Junior’s love of books.

One of the techniques that make The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian so emotionally affecting is incongruity—two events with very different emotional registers often occur at the same time in the story. Readers learn of Eugene’s violent death outside of a 7-Eleven, for example, in the same breath that they learn that Junior has given a handmade Valentine’s card to Penelope. Then as Junior learns of Mary’s death, here, Miss Warren’s hug gives him an erection. Junior’s shock and grief to hear of his sister’s unexpected death, the third major death to affect him and his family in a short period of time, sends him into a fit of hysterical laugher. Junior’s laughter, too, seems incongruous with the news. But, as Junior has said, when it comes to death, laughter is really the same thing as tears. Junior cantaloupe-tasting vomit, and sudden dream of the last time he ate cantaloupe could be seen as an unconscious processing of his extreme emotion. It can also be read as an almost mystical experience, an experience that harkens back to the magic that was an integral part of American Indian culture in bygone days. Junior, however, opts not to interpret the strange experience.

Read an important quote from Junior on facing death.