If you look up the word “magic” in the dictionary you’ll find a picture of Sherman Alexie. As cliched as that may sound, particularly in reference to Mr. Alexie, it’s the truth. He has the amazing ability to make anyone fall in love with him. I’ve been under his spell ever since reading an article about Smoke Signals, the film based on his short story collection The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fist Fight in Heaven, in the New York Times Magazine some ten years ago. In the years since every single person I’ve introduced to that movie has added it to their list of all time favorites. Every person I’ve recommended Alexie’s first novel Reservation Blues to has declared it one of the best books they’ve ever read. On my 21st birthday rather than going out and getting blitzed I chose to attend an in-store Alexie was doing at the Barnes and Noble at Union Square in support of The Toughest Indian in the World. When I approached to get my copy signed I forced myself to keep my mouth shut because I knew if I said so much as “hello” the words “will you marry me?” wouldn’t be far behind. This writer produces such consistently remarkable work his talent supersedes the definition of “talent” and moves into the realm of spell craft. The enchantment holds with Alexie’s latest novel Flight, a story about the seductive pull of revenge and its long term effects on society as a whole.
“Call me Zits” asks the teenage narrator on the first page, a name he acquired due to the “Milky Way” of acne that covers his body. Orphaned at the age of six, Zits has spent most of his life hopping from one foster home to the next. He has no family, no friends, and no roots. He’s half Irish and half Indian but beyond that he knows very little about his personal heritage. Getting arrested for petty crimes is the only tradition he knows.
During one such arrest Zits meets a young man named Justice. The two become friends and over a couple of weeks Justice convinces Zits the only way to rid himself of the anger that’s simmering inside him, the only way to get back at a world that has lost all hope in him, is by visiting as much violence upon society as he feels it has visited upon him. Soon after Zits enters a bank in Seattle armed with two hand guns and the intention of killing everyone in his sight. This is the jumping off point from which Alexie launches Zits onto a journey back in time to witness sites of historic American war and violence.
One thing that struck me right off the bat was how sharply Alexie was able to paint his main character. All fifteen pages of the first chapter are devoted exclusively to character development. Not only does the reader learn all about Zits’ troubled upbringing but that this lack of stability is the root of his weak sense of self. Zits has no opinions and very few deeply held beliefs. He knows that circumstance has made him an orphan, a half-breed, and not quite handsome, but he has no idea who he wants to be, who he has the choice of being. Alexie’s ability to draw up such a detailed character in such a short amount of time allows him to move the plot forward with greater speed assuring that his reader never grows bored.
Flight is what one would call a “timely” novel. As the USA continues to wage war against a country and a people accused of trying to destroy their freedom, Alexie delivers a story about the many ambiguities countries at war stridently try to ignore. As Zits witnesses the battle of Little Bighorn first hand he understands that General Custer believes he is doing the right thing in attempting to slaughter the Indians, and likewise the Indians believe they are justified in killing his advancing troops. They also believe they are justified in desecrating the bodies of dead soldiers and torturing the few living captives. After seeing an FBI agent murder an IRON activist in cold blood, Zits is shocked to discover the agent finds his own actions deplorable but performs them because he truly believes the members of IRON are dangerous. The story is filled with instances in which heroes do reprehensible things and terrorists are revealed to be genuinely likable human beings. Alexie reminds us that no one ever thinks they are the bad guy, everyone does what they think is morally right. And when morality takes the form of violence we enter into a never ending cycle of vengeance and death. Zits sums it up on page 77 when he asks “Is revenge a circle inside of a circle inside of a circle?” As he travels back to the present, Zits figures out that the only way to end the cycle is to choose flight over fighting.
Zits articulates the moral of the story with surprising clarity on pages 162-163: “Maybe you’re not supposed to kill. No matter who tells you to do it. No matter how good or bad the reason. Maybe you’re supposed to believe that all life is sacred.” Such a tried and true idea might come off as trite in the hands of a lesser writer, but having positioned this realization within an overarching story of self-actualization, Alexie makes it come off as down right revelatory. The reader is surprised and excited to see Zits finally come to a realization that is all his own.
Blunt, brave, and beautiful Flight is an engrossing read, expertly executed by one of the brightest voices in contemporary American literature, who proves once again that it is impossible to resist his charm.