In the opening chapters of the extraordinary new novel Flight, Sherman Alexie's narrator, a lonely, orphaned, biracial teenager who calls himself Zits, fires two guns in a bank and is quickly shot dead by a guard. What follows is a series of scenes, all violent and each of increasing personal significance for the protagonist. They span the 19th, 20th, and 21st centuries; most predate his existence. That's right: This book is about a gun-toting, time-traveling teenager. And it's brilliant.
Starting when Zits shoots up the bank, each act of violence begets what the late Kurt Vonnegut Jr. might have called a "timequake," sending our "half-breed" Billy Pilgrim into situations rife with complex questions about history, nationhood and personal identity. Zits inhabits the bodies of white and Native American men - think Slaughterhouse-Five meets Being John Malkovich - while witnessing past after past. As Zits puts it, in these places "the wounded recognized the wounded," and each scene helps him better understand his complicated present, the multitudes he contains: "I am Irish and Indian, which would be the coolest combination in the world if my parents were around to teach me how to be Irish and Indian. But they're not here, and haven't been for years, so I'm not really Irish or Indian."
In this passage, as in the rest of the book, Alexie uses not just his trademark humor, but a plain (and plaintive) poetic voice. In Flight's opening pages, Zits describes his newest in a long line of lousy foster fathers as "the sports section with a bad haircut." Towards the end, a much kinder adult smiles at him, and Zits reflects, "Every one of those teeth is a statue of somebody beautiful." His powers of observation are most evident as he reorients himself inside new and widely different people and places. While inhabiting a pilot, Zits realizes he has "borrowed (the pilot's) courage and joy, as well as his sadness and regret." In the body of Hank Storm, an FBI agent, Zits gets a visit from the Storm family in a hospital bed: "Hank makes the world safe. He is a good and loving husband and father. He is one hundred different versions of himself. And only one of them is a killer."
Alexie's 15-year-old can talk about his feelings with disarming candor. Though it takes some getting used to, it's plausible - his life in the foster care system makes his violent tour through U.S. history seem like summer vacation. Phrases like "You can't trust people with your love" and "It hurts to have hope" read like poetic recognitions, fresh reports from our troubled times.
Flight reads quickly and its simple prose has a sense of wonder about brutalities of every scale. A representative sample comes in a scene where, from the body of an adulterous airplane pilot, Zits watches the man's wife smash his model planes as she kicks him out of the house. "... She throws out plastic airplanes, toy airplanes, model airplanes, remote control airplanes. They crash into the lawn. They crash into the apple tree in the front yard. They crash into the driveway. They glide and crash into the street. Five, ten, fifteen, twenty little plane crashes."
This act recalls what one of Zits' Indian foster fathers had done to him once, smashing $600 of remote-control plane after being outmaneuvered by the teenager. Wounded by the loss of both parents, struggling with identity and authority, Zits' longing to understand his present through his past is as single-minded as Captain Ahab's quest for revenge on the white whale. But Zits' ultimate destination - honest, real connection with a trustworthy person - is closer to Ishmael's reason for heading to sea in the first place.
Zits finds this connection most intensely while inhabiting a drunk, homeless Indian man. After stopping a white man on his way to work, Zits-as-panhandler demands respect from the man in the form of a story. "Something personal," he says, "something secret." In a scene that shows the accumulated cost of continual violence, Zits and the reader realize, nearly simultaneously, just where - and in whom - he has arrived.
Released in the wake of the Virginia Tech shootings, the book's eerie verisimilitude makes it tough to read at points. But the ending is not one of them. Alexie's disturbed young man, possessed of unhealthy notions about right and wrong, has learned enough to correct the tailspin, to get through the turbulence. From its cover, you might think the book is about guns. Flight soars because its true subject is justice.
208 pages, softcover: $13.00.