BOOKS / Two Americas: leaping salmon and hot wheels

IN The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight In Heaven (Secker and Warburg, pounds 8.99), Sherman Alexie gives us a vibrant, quirky collection of 22 linked stories from on and around the American Indian Reservation in Washington. Gathering up the twigs of past and present into a strong contemporary bundle, Alexie ushers a cast of strong characters through the book.

There are fistfights at school, ball games, drunken evenings and family reminiscences. In one autobiographical story, Alexei's father claims to have been the only Indian at Woodstock; his mother comments: 'Your father was always half crazy, and the other half was on medication.' The stories teem with humour, both gentle and abrasive. One character has an unpronounceable Indian name which Alexie translates as 'he who crawls silently through the grass with a small bow and one bad arrow hunting for enough deer to feed the whole tribe - we just call him James.'

In the best of the stories, 'This is What it Means to Say Phoenix, Arizona', an Indian called Victor Many Horses drives three days to collect his father's remains and bring them home to the reservation. His friend, Thomas Builds-The- Fire goes along, taking the ashes and tossing them into the Spokane Falls: 'And your father will rise like a salmon, leap over the bridge, over me, and find his way home.' Alexie has an ability to jump the prose out of this world and into another, but he keeps the style plain.

In the most serious pieces, he mixes the glories of the past with the indignities of the present, overlaid by ancestral voices laughing in the trees. Imagine Crazy Horse had the A-Bomb in 1876, Alexie muses, 'Would the urban Indians still be sprawled around the one-room apartment in the cable television reservation?' These darker moments give The Lone Ranger its depth and scope. This America is not the land of opportunity but the continent of lost potential.

Robert Olmstead's America By Land (Secker and Warburg, pounds 8.99) treats the whole country as a reservation. This road novel has echoes of Jack Kerouac and Hunter S Thompson, but it also leans heavily on the road songs of James Taylor, The Eagles, and Paul Simon: 'Before she left for Mexico, her father said, having a daughter is like a needle in the heart.' But like country and western lyrics, Olmstead's prose overreaches in almost every paragraph by exactly one sentence; the effect is like an eager employer telling you to think what you already know.

His slangy style wraps itself round the tale of Raymond Romeo Redfield and his cousin Juliet. She has sold her baby to a childless couple in Albuquerque and she and Redfield determine to reclaim it. Redfield rides down from New York to New Mexico, finds Juliet, then her child, and heads out again, like some high plains drifter on a Harley. This is essentially modern picaresque, except the hero is as uneven and unpredictable as the roads he drives. Juliet, too, is a strange, protean creation, moody and mixed up. The best and worst of Olmstead is here, the worst in the superfluous final sentence: 'Out on the road you don't need what's left behind, unless you need it.'

America is large and familiar enough to sustain Olmstead's character-as-journey idea. But however many '66 Corvettes or snips of Bob Dylan, the novel lacks the alchemy to make it more than its parts.