Echoing the tragic events last week at Virginia Tech, Sherman Alexie’s latest novel, “Flight,” features a young, edgy outcast named Zits on the verge of colossal violence. Mr. Alexie is no stranger to this brand of gutsy writing. With 17 volumes of fiction and poetry to his name, he has established an impressive literary reputation as a bold writer who goes straight for the aorta. He is in the business of making his readers laugh and cry. And his most recent novel is no exception.
At its beginning, Mr. Alexie invokes the most famous opening line of literature: “Call me Zits.” Instead of a perilous hunt for a great white whale, this 15-year-old orphaned half-American-Indian pyromaniac undertakes a voyage of an entirely different dimension.
The reader meets Zits one morning when he is counting the pimples on his face (47 in all) in front of the bathroom mirror at the home of his newest set of foster parents. From the get-go, Mr. Alexie lets the reader in on the messy interior life of this marginalized teenager: “I’m dying from about ninety-nine kinds of shame. I’m ashamed of being fifteen years old. And being tall. And skinny. And ugly. I’m ashamed that I look like a bag of zits tied to a broomstick. I wonder if loneliness causes acne. I wonder if being Indian causes acne.”
Zits’s Indian father abandoned him shortly after birth. His mother, a fun-loving Irishwoman who sang Blood, Sweat & Tears tunes to Zits as an infant, died of breast cancer when he was only 6. Since then, Zits has been bouncing from foster home to foster home, school to school. “My entire life fits into one small backpack,” he says. At 8, he ran away for the first time. At 15, he is already a self-described drunk.
After Zits lands in a juvenile jail in the Central District of Seattle for the umpteenth time, he meets a white, pretty-boy anarchist named Justice, who schools him on how to take his sorry life into his own hands. Instead of opening fire on bystanders in a crowded bank, as Justice wanted, Zits finds himself on a time-traveling journey that traverses multiple centuries and transforms his worn-out soul in unexpected ways.
First Zits arrives in the compact body of Hank Storm, a white, blue-eyed F.B.I. agent who meets up with two Indian radicals on a dark backwoods road on the Nannapush Indian reservation in Red River, Idaho, about 1975. Then he resurfaces as a speechless Indian kid at the brink of the bloody battle led by Crazy Horse at Little Big Horn in 1876. Zits’s next conversion of flesh is as Augustus (or Gus) Sullivan, an aging, expert Indian tracker employed by the Army in the same era.
Mr. Alexie fast-forwards in time: his mouthy narrator inhabits Jimmy, a flight instructor who has to deal with the guilt-ridden aftermath when one of his students carries out a terrorist act in Chicago. And then, finally, Zits reincarnates into his father’s image, a homeless drunk who roots through trash bins for leftovers and, as it turns out, some bits and pieces of respect.
Many of these allegorical, action-packed vignettes tread familiar thematic territory — the continuing fight for survival, the anger of racial divides, the absence of fathers — of Mr. Alexie’s earlier works, like “Indian Killer” and “Ten Little Indians.” But with “Flight,” he takes these themes a step further: he skillfully explores both sides of the proverbial war. Zits witnesses brutal violence through the eyes of whites and Indians, fathers and sons, and he begins to understand what it means to be the hero, the villain and the victim.
Given the far-reaching scope of Mr. Alexie’s narrative, a reader might expect an epic of Melvillian proportions. Instead, in this slim volume (making it more novella than novel), Mr. Alexie manages to move effortlessly in and out of centuries like a person moving between waking and sleep.
Rather than getting bogged down in the details of seminal historical events, he telescopes to the most intimate moments, when his characters rise and fall. To sustain a compressed narrative continuum, recurring details — like the smell of beer and onions on a character’s breath or smashed-up model airplanes — surface in Zits’s consciousness.
Also, Mr. Alexie, a four-time World Poetry Bout champion, demonstrates his keen ear for voice; Zits rarely strays from the lively, sad incantations of his former 15-year-old self, regardless of whose skin he is in. “I miss my mother,” he says as he pilots a small plane as Jimmy. “I miss her all the time. I want to see her again. And now here I am in the body of a pilot as he flies. It makes sense. The last time my mother was happy she was on an airplane. So maybe this is my last place to be happy.”
By the novel’s conclusion, Mr. Alexie returns full circle to one of the subordinate themes of “Moby-Dick”: how human love and sympathy can save a life (found in the relationship of Ishmael and Queequeg). By offering perspectives from both sides of the battle, Mr. Alexie convincingly illustrates how no one can live alone, no matter what the situation.
“I open my eyes,” says Zits when he wakes up for the last time in the novel. “I think all the people in this bank are better than I am. They have better lives than I do. Or maybe they don’t. Maybe we’re all lonely. Maybe some of them also hurtle through time and see war, war, war. Maybe we’re all in this together.”
Right up to the novel’s final sentence, Mr. Alexie succeeds yet again with his ability to pierce to the heart of matters, leaving this reader with tears in her eyes.