By Sherman Alexie
$13 paperback, 208 pages
Poet, novelist, and filmmaker Sherman Alexie is back. It’s been 10 years since his last novel, Indian Killer, but he hasn’t been resting on his laurels. In the interim, Alexie published two story collections (The Toughest Indian in the World, 10 Little Indians), several books of poetry, and two screenplays (Smoke Signals and The Business of Fancy Dancing) and directed the latter.
Not bad for the Spokane/Coeur d’Alene Indian who has become the unofficial spokesperson for Native American affairs — often indiscriminately lambasting liberals and conservatives as well as American Indians. In your face, Alexie takes no prisoners.
His new novel, Flight, is told in the voice of Zits, a quirky yet winsome teenage half-breed: “I’m a fifteen-year-old foster kid with a history of fire setting, time traveling, body shifting, and mass-murder contemplation. I think I’m a lot more than just dangerous. I think I might be unlovable.”
Zits is arrested after fighting with foster parents No. 21 and sent to a juvenile-detention center. There he meets Justice, a teenage anarchist who indoctrinates Zits in the practice of taking out his rage on the “evil White man’s world” with two pistols, a paint gun, and a .38 Special.
Then Zits is killed during a bungled bank robbery. End of story? Hardly. This is former stand-up comic Alexie’s novel, so a funny thing happens next: Zits time travels to several defining moments in Native American history, appearing as an Indian boy at Little Big Horn; as an FBI agent infiltrating the American Indian Movement; he even slips into his Indian father’s skin.
When Zits inhabits a pilot who unknowingly trained a Muslim terrorist how to fly, the heavy hand of the author imbues Zits’ culture clash with all things — perish the word — universal.
Zits, however, is no Billy Pilgrim, despite Alexie’s effort to channel the late, great Kurt Vonnegut.
DBC Pierre’s 2003 Booker Prize-winning novel God Vernon Little told a similar tale of an incarcerated 15-year-old suspect in a Columbine-type shooting in Texas. While superb satire, Pierre’s redemptive ending was just as cliché as the one Alexie provides in Flight.
In the end, Zits is given another chance with white foster parents No. 22, along with a super dose of Clearasil to treat his 41 zits and teenage angst. It’s a fireman and a policeman who save him — who become the true heroes of the world according to Alexie.
Still, Flight is as readable as it is quirky and gimmicky, a dark comic parable first, and a provocative piece of fiction second. (A dry run for The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, his forthcoming YA novel?) A 13-page study guide inside Flight suggests: “Think of Barack Obama and his white upbringing and his efforts to understand and participate in the black experience.”
Ah, the business of creative marketing! Is a new printing with reference to the Virginia Tech killing spree forthcoming?