“Call me Zits,” the half-Indian, foster-kid narrator of Sherman Alexie’s new novel, Flight, blurts out right away. “Everyone calls me Zits.” Though not quite as resonant as “Call me Ishmael,” it’s an opening to get our attention, and Alexie wastes no time in setting us off on a whirlwind trip—through time, through wars, through an American landscape of violence, abuse, and even terror. We zoom through the piss-soaked alleyways of Seattle, stumbling along with a homeless, drunken Indian; and revisit epic battle sites, from Little Big Horn to the hellish reservation of Red River, Idaho (“the asshole of America”), where FBI agents and Indian activists square off in the bitter year of 1975. This is all Alexie territory—ground he’s covered in short stories (“The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven,” “The Toughest Indian in the World,” “Ten Little Indians”), novels (Reservation Blues, Indian Killer), films (Smoke Signals, The Business of Fancydancing), and poems. And for that we’re grateful—every few years we can only hope for a new Alexie work to sound a wake-up call, equal parts fierce and defiant, manic and irreverent.
So then what is this new slim paperback? Billed as his first novel in 10 years, it is actually more of an extended riff, longer than a story but slighter, flightier, than a full-length novel. Was it perhaps meant as a young-adult book—a morality tale of a teenager battling issues of identity and history, alcoholism and acne, who, through some strange “back-to-the-future” fantasy trip, arrives at an understanding of himself and his country? Whatever it is—literary exercise, rapid-fire monologue, adolescent vision quest—it is nevertheless an often thrilling and surprising ride, and wholly Alexie. What other writer would dare connect the dots, so to speak, between a bad case of pimples, Blood, Sweat & Tears, IRON (Indigenous Rights Now!), Crazy Horse (the “Sioux Jesus”), child abuse, crystal meth, and airplane terrorists? Or have his main character exclaim: “Starbucks can kiss my shiny red ass.”
If Zits lashes out at Starbucks, mind you, it’s because he’s been going through a bit of a rough patch, even for a 15-year-old. He’s just crashed out of yet another foster home, and he’s still stewing over his Indian father abandoning him and his Irish-American mother, who’s dying of cancer. He’s alone, hurt, and confused. What does it mean to be a “half-breed”? Where does he fit in, if at all? “I’m a blank sky, a human solar eclipse,” he moans. And, to top it off, he has that awful pockmarked face. “I wonder if loneliness causes acne. I wonder if being Indian causes acne,” he cracks bitterly.
After he’s briefly locked up for assaulting his new foster parents, Zits befriends a white anarchist named “Justice” and is seduced by his vision of healing violence. Once back on the streets, the two hatch a plot to storm a bank and open fire. This will be their act of personal and public vengeance. But is this justice? Zits isn’t really sure, and at the moment of truth, gun drawn, he blacks out—and so begins his travel through time and space, and across the even greater divide of race. Still unsure what has happened, he returns in the body of a white FBI agent in Red River, Idaho, in 1975. “My zits give me superpowers,” he thinks. Later, he realizes his true gift: “I can fall so far inside a person, inside his memories, that I can play them like a movie.” (I can even see this now as a possible graphic novel— Zits, the Half-Breed Superhero—or an animated film.)
But enough about the zits. What Alexie really wants to do is transport us to tell-tale moments of history, seen from inside the skin of its anonymous actors—two white FBI agents murdering an Indian activist; an Indian boy goaded to torture a white child captured at Little Big Horn; a 19th-century white tracker who attempts to “go Indian” and flee his regiment; an adulterous, suicidal pilot, still haunted by the image of the Islamic terrorist he taught to fly. “We all got blood on us,” Zits is told, as he watches this grim slide show of wounded lives unfold.
But it is his last incarnation that hits closest to home and is the most moving of all: a rundown Indian wino in present-day Seattle. “I stare at my bloody reflection. I am older than I used to be. I am battered, bruised, and broken,” Zits says. “But I know who I am. I am my father.” This vision of his father completes the journey and brings Zits to the roots of his feelings of rage and betrayal, his emptiness, his thirst for payback and blood. And it is with something like forgiveness that he realizes that “all life is sacred.” It’s a fitting insight for a time-traveling teenager who has just witnessed war and violence from both sides, and yet somehow it also sounds like a too-simplistic homily, a watered-down truth. When has Alexie ever made it that easy for us?