In “The Approximate Size of My Favorite Tumor,” Sherman Alexie portrays a character immersed in humor so to say, from the cradle to the grave and from the womb to the tomb! Jimmy Many Horses is an individual who owns problems galore to make his life miserable and humorous. His never-ending concerns are relationships, alcoholism, modern society versus traditional values and above all doomed lives. He regales the readers with his version of the history of his relationship with his wife, Norma. In the trials and tribulations of life, even when one is afflicted with the life-threatening disease like cancer, humor is the potential energy giver that lightens the burden of the painful and stressful hours and days of the patient, and those around him. My chosen aspect in this story is humor, humor and more humor! That runs through each and every turn of the story. Detailed analysis and evidence has been provided in the ensuing paragraphs and at this stage, I need to make a special mention of the encounter of the couple with a policeman patrolling the highway and Sherman Alexie describes, “We watched him walk back to his cruiser, climb in, and drive off, breaking four or five laws as he flipped a U turn, left 166 rubber, crossed the center line, broke the speed limit, and ran through a stop sign without lights and siren.” (5) Amazing observation! Jimmy struggles to come to terms with his alcohol addiction and the terminal cancer that will carry him to the grave undoubtedly. Yet he is jovial and is unconcerned about his health concerns. He asserts with confidence, “Listen . . . if I stole 1,000 horses, I’d give you 501 of them.”(2) This man Jimmy is not an ordinary human being. He is willing to laugh in a near death situation and he goes on with his tantrums in all seriousness. Norma finds it difficult to put up with his willful laughter dispositions and leaves him temporarily to join the powwow circuit. Notwithstanding the abrupt separation, internally she intensely remembers the psychological bond with Jimmy and returns to him in his last days and by that time, she has ingrained something from his original asset of humor as she explains the significance of her return journey, in this meaningful composition, "Because someone needs to help you die the right way," she said. "And we both know that dying ain't something you ever done before.” I had to agree with that." And maybe," she said, "because making fry bread and helping people die are the last two things Indians are good at." "Well," I said. "At least you're good at one of them." And we laughed. (6) Humor is contagious and Jimmy must have enjoyed the sparks of wit now seen in his wife. During the X ray examination the tumor is identified and on Jimmy’s getting that information, he puts his stamp of humor and he offers its description by stating that "Well, I told her the doctor showed me my X-rays and my favorite tumor was just about the size of a baseball, shaped like one, too. Even had stitch marks."(1) But at the end of the story, Norma has come to terms with his sense of humor and their domestic dialogues attain a new dimension. In the middle of the story Jimmy’s metaphorical remark, steals the thunder and he candidly says, “Still, you have to realize that laughter saved Norma and me from pain, too. Humor was an antiseptic that cleaned the deepest of personal wounds (4). In the grim health-situation in which Jimmy is placed, any human being will be cynical but ...Show more
Even before I got cancer, my favorite kind of humor was the type you might call “painfully funny.” One of my favorite short stories, to read and to teach, is “The Approximate Size of My Favorite Tumor,” by Sherman Alexie. Jimmy Many Horses has spent his life “laughing to keep from crying,” as the old song goes, telling jokes to gain some illusion of control in bad situations, to claim his humanity in the midst of chaos, death, or inhumanity. Problem is, he can’t stop telling jokes, even when telling his wife about his visit to the doctor, giving him his diagnosis of terminal cancer:
“I told her the doctor showed me my X-rays and my favorite tumor was just about the size of a baseball, shaped like one, too. Even had stitch marks.”
“You’re full of shit.”
“No, really. I told her to call me Babe Ruth. Or Roger Maris. Maybe even Hank Aaron ’cause there must have been about 755 damn tumors inside me. Then I told her I was going to Cooperstown and sit right down in the lobby of the Hall of Fame. Make myself a new exhibit, you know? Pin my X-rays to my chest and point out the tumors What a dedicated baseball fan! What a sacrifice for the national pastime!”
While Jimmy’s wife needs him to be serious for a moment, to give her a chance to process her shock and grief, and while she might even have been willing to join him in jokes to cope later — Jimmy cannot stop and give her that time, even when she tells him she’ll leave him if he says one more funny thing. But even in the midst of his fury at this unwanted and useless “sacrifice” that has been pressed upon him, Jimmy’s joke is brilliant, both inside and outside the context of the story.
The historical allusions to baseball and Hank Aaron’s supplanting of Babe Ruth’s home-run record (with his 755 career home runs) raise issues about the racism that plays a low-key but omnipresent role in the rest of the story. Even in 1973, when Aaron was getting close to breaking Ruth’s record, he received about 930,000 letters, the majority of them death threats or wishes that he would die: “Dear Nigger, You black animal, I hope you never live long enough to hit more home runs than the great Babe Ruth.” Another letter that has been widely quoted wishes on Aaron a disease primarily connected with Africa and her descendants: “Dear Hank Aaron, How about some sickle cell anemia, Hank?”
But cancer, as Jimmy reminds us, does not discriminate; it is not a respecter of race, class, or power. Cancer, like humor, is an equal opportunity offender. And cancer has become almost like a national pastime. You can’t go anywhere without running into those damned pink ribbons and pricey pink items commodifying death and infantilizing the very personal, protracted, and agonizing fight to survive against breast cancer, a phenomenon some angry breast-cancer survivors have labeled “pinkwashing” — all purchased with the best of intentions and the hope to find a cure. But that support ironically creates a sense of audience, of fandom and voyeurism, the pink ribbons becoming our admission tickets to the new national pastime. Cancer itself is like a bad joke that just won’t quit.
To me, it is this kind of humor that reminds us of who we are, how little we actually control, and why it all matters anyway. Continue reading →
Posted in: Anthony Griffith, assault of laughter, controversial humor, Dark Humor, Humor in America, Humor Studies, Laughing to Keep from Crying, Native American Humor, Tig Notaro | Tagged: "laughing to keep from crying", "The Approximate Size of My Favorite Tumor", Anthony Griffith, Babe Ruth, baseball, cancer, cancer humor, Hank Aaron, humor, Humor Studies, Sherman Alexie, Tig Notaro