By Sherman Alexie

Atlantic Monthly Press. 223 pp. $21

READING Sherman Alexie's The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven is like leaning out the side window of a speeding car, watching the world slip in and out of focus faster than you can sort the future from the present from the past. The world, in this case, is an American Indian reservation. Keeping time like the staccato thumping of a nail stuck in a tire are drumbeats, blaring televisions, dancing, fighting, nightmares, visions and the small explosions of beer bottles thrown from a car driving in no particular direction.

Maybe from all that thumping, the narrators of most of the 22 stories in The Lone Ranger are insomniacs. One of them, Victor, is at least part Sherman Alexie. Both grew up on the reservation for the Spokane/Coeur d'Alene tribe, a government ghetto where dogs won't eat the "commodity" (government-issue) beef and cheese, but people do. That and potatoes, every day. Victor's sisters save a few quarters to buy food coloring to dye the potatoes red, green and blue, helping them imagine that the starchy whiteness is anything else. There are days when Victor's family is so hungry they fantasize eating "oranges, Pepsi-Cola, chocolate, deer jerky." Life in this American Soweto is so suffocating that drinking Sterno or sniffing rubber cement and gas fumes is a rite of passage as innocent as a child's first kiss. "I remember my brother stretched out over the lawnmower, his mouth pressed tightly to the mouth of the gas tank . . . everything underwater . . . Stare up at the surface, sunlight filtered through water like fingers, like a hand filled with the promise of love and oxygen."

And there are the constant humiliations Indians suffer off the "rez": A couple is pulled over for no reason by a cop who extorts money. A young man with dark skin and long black hair is watched like a thief for walking into a 7-11 to buy a Creamsicle..

The Lone Ranger is a collage of dreams, journal entries, quotes from other native writers, archival letters, fictional Kafkaesque court transcripts, tribal newspaper reports, drug trips, and basketball games. In Alexie's fiction, basketball is a weapon and therapy for negotiating the straits between an impoverished Indian world and a suspicious, secret-coded white one. Basketball is also a white man's invention that's been appropriated as the reservation game every Indian plays.

In real life, according to recent articles about him, Sherman Alexie begins his day writing at the kitchen table and rewards himself with a sweaty game on the Spokane YMCA court after lunch. It's a ritual that may have saved his life. Three years ago, when the small literary journal Hanging Loose first published a few of Alexie's unsolicited poems and short stories, he stopped drinking. His writing only got better. At 26, he has already published a collection of short stories and poetry, The Business of Fancydancing; and two books of poetry. Atlantic Monthly Press reportedly offered Alexie a six-figure contract for two more books: this one and a novel to follow.

In the title story, the narrator admires a white basketball player who "could play . . . Indian ball fast and loose." The author himself has parlayed his gift for writing poetry into fast, loose prose. At intervals, Alexie so loses himself in his imagery that his prose unravels into a succession of modern sonnets with jarring, sardonic codas. The story "Indian Education" is structured like a diary documenting the first seven years of Victor, the protagonist, at school on the reservation and the next five years at the white farm-town high school. In second grade, the missionary teacher gives the class a spelling test. But she singles Victor out, giving him a test for junior-high students. When he gets all the answers right, she crumples up the paper and makes him eat it. "You'll learn respect," she says, mocking him before the class by calling him "Indian, Indian, Indian." This part of the story ends with Victor saying, "Yes, I am. I am Indian. Indian, I am."

The Lone Ranger can be read either as a long poem, an experimental novel or a collection of short stories. The same characters keep appearing either as narrators or subjects. Alexie uses a rough-cut documentary style, as though he were holding a video camera, interviewing childhood friends and relatives and recording their stories in brief, disjointed scenes, then turning the camera on himself at different points in his life. The result is a many-faceted picture, like a mosaic of broken glass.

The unnamed narrator of the story "Imagining the Reservation" actually tapes shattered pieces of a mirror all over his body, the shards reflecting his reservation life. The effect is both dreamy, like stepping into a Salvador Dali, and shockingly real -- too true to be fiction. Alexie lulls his reader with passages of lush elegiac prose-poetry, only to break off the reverie with an act of unspeakable cruelty. In one scene, U.S. cavalrymen play polo with an Indian woman's head. In another, a woman holds her newborn son while, unknown to her, the doctor ties her tubes.

Most of the characters in The Lone Ranger are collaborators with a white world that has stripped them of everything but their supply of liquor, collaborators in a centuries-old plot to tear away, bit by bit, every scrap of Indian land, culture, character. At a carnival midway Victor sees Dirty Joe, passed out from "too much coat-pocket whiskey . . . I stood over him, looked down at his flat face, a map for all the wars he fought at the Indian bars." As a cruel joke, Victor gives a carny 20 bucks to put Dirty Joe on a roller coaster for the grotesque entertainment of the white crowd. After the carny chucks Joe down the steps head-first into the crowd for emptying his stomach on the platform, Victor flees to the funhouse. There, wracked with guilt, he examines his own distorted features in the funhouse "crazy mirrors" and sees "the Indian who offered up another Indian like some treaty."

Given the pervasive bleakness he finds around him, it's remarkable that Sherman Alexie has survived at all. There is something hopeful in the very fact that he is writing, examining what hurts most, and healing ancient wounds. But there's also an urgency bordering on desperation in his voice. Alexie seems to be telling stories to save himself from the bottomless depression of the bottle, to rescue his tribe and his culture from oblivion, and to force a complacent white reader to look out the window, maybe even stop the car, and witness the crime that is an American Indian reservation.

Anne Goodwin Sides is senior editor of National Public Radio's Weekend Edition, Sunday.