Zits, the narrator of Sherman Alexie’s seventeenth book, is a teenager who is tough in the long tradition of American angry young men, such as Huckleberry Finn, Holden Caulfield, and Russell Banks’s Bone. In this tradition the narrator is self-damning, self-hating, and comic. "I’m ashamed that I look like a bag of zits tied to a broomstick," Zits says. These stories tell the American myth of self-determination: anyone, in America, these stories say, can become anything. A rich man can become a bum, a bum a rich man. Huckleberry Finn can rise above his station as the son of a worthless, drunken, poor white man. Zits, with his long-absent Native American father, his mother who has died from breast cancer, can rise above his own troubled history.
In Flight, Alexie mixes the myth of self-determination with the Victorian morality tale. In self-determination, the power for change resides completely in the protagonist. In the morality tale, external forces, such a divine spirit, show the protagonist the error of his ways. Flight opens with Zits assigned to yet another foster home. Although Zits makes choices, such as pushing over his stepmother, they only increase his powerlessness. He finds himself in jail, where he meets a fastidious, Nietzsche-quoting white boy named Justice. Justice says things such as "Hate can be empowering" and plots the extermination of the whites. Zits prepares to complete this plot by entering a bank and killing everyone. Just as Zits actually imagines himself carrying out this violence, the author whisks Zits into a time warp. In a sequence of time travel episodes, Zits visits several sites of key Native American events and random moments of Native American disintegration: the Battle of Little Big Horn, Red Rocks 1975, and a drunken man on the streets of Tacoma.
The time travel in Flight belongs more to Charles Dickens’s "A Christmas Carol" than the science of Slaughterhouse-Five. Like the Ghost of Christmases Past, the author guides Zit’s time travel through a number of illustrative scenes. These scenes reveal the tragedy and enormity of Native American experience. The author plops Zits in media res into history as one of the players, where Zits is offered a chance to act. He is often unable to. As an FBI Indian killer at Red Rocks, Zits merely vomits. As a drunken man in Tacoma, Zits merely hollers obscenities at the couple trying to help him.
When Zits returns, he finds himself returned to the instant before he decided to begin exterminating the bank patrons. He walks across town to turn himself over to the one friendly cop he knows. The cop, in turn, finds Zits a suitable family. And Zits for his part sees the futility of his past behavior. The story ends just as a "A Christmas Carol" ends: the protagonist sees the error of his ways before it is too late.
Sometimes the mix of two different literary genres can result in fireworks. The Wind-Up Bird Chronicles by Haruki Murakami is a recent successful example. In Flight, a short novel, Alexie doesn’t have the space to explore the connections and conflicts between determination and the morality tale. In the current moral climate, in the face of something as enormous as genocide, this seems like a very promising mix. The result, however, ends up being pre-determined and sadly inert.
Reviewed by Matt Briggs