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Lesson as literature

Sherman Alexie covers principles and pimples


Meet Zits, the protagonist of Flight, Sherman Alexie’s first novel in 10 years. Zits is whip-smart, but hopelessly ugly. He has 47 pimples on his face: 14 on his forehead, 21 on his left cheek, six on his right cheek, five on his chin and “a huge North Star zit” on the end of his nose. He’s tall and skinny. “I look like a bag of zits tied to a broomstick,” he says.

Zits has other problems, too. He’s a 15-year-old, half-Irish/half-American Indian orphan. His father took off about two minutes after he was born, and his mother died of cancer when he was 6. Then a well-intentioned aunt raised Zits, but her boyfriend molested him. After that, there were 20 foster homes and 22 schools. But this kid is too bright and too cynical to expect any pity from anyone. When a social worker tells him, “You’ve never learned how to be a fully realized human being,” Zits thinks, “Jesus, what kind of overeducated bitch says that to a kid?” Although he’s certainly not going to be anyone’s first choice for the prom, as a narrator, Zits is a dream. And, with a plot that’s as fast as the storyteller’s wit and as thin as his emaciated waistline, Alexie’s novel is an engaging enough companion for the two hours required to read it.

Here’s how things go: It’s 2007 in Seattle and after a slow, painful look in the mirror in the pink bathroom of his 21st foster home, Zits says “Fuck you” to his new foster father, pushes his foster mother into a wall, runs out of the house and ends up in jail. While there he meets Justice, a hyper-educated, culturally sensitive whiteboy who apologizes for his race and, after their release, arms Zits for retribution. Next thing we know, Zits walks into a downtown bank and opens fire in the lobby. A guard shoots him in the back of the head, but rather than dying, Zits travels back in time, inhabiting the bodies of various killers, victims and innocent witnesses of violence. Unsurprisingly, the journey teaches Zits about the futility of revenge.

In the hands of a lesser talent, Flight would be pedantic drivel—a New Age re-spinning of A Christmas Carol for those in need of sensitivity training. But Alexie is far more comfortable as the wiseacre shooting spitballs in the back of the classroom than he is as the moralist lecturing from the dais of political correctness. As a result, the book is, thankfully, more clever and mischievous than didactic. And the lessons, when they do come, resonate with the sass one expects from a cheeky teenager.

One of the more brazen mini-homilies occurs before Zits begins time traveling. He’s recalling his stay with Edgar, an American Indian foster father who takes him to the foothills of the Cascade Mountains to race remote-control airplanes. When Zits starts winning, Edgar makes them switch planes, and finally, after he’s endured all the losing he can handle, Edgar crashes both of their planes into trees. Zits’ take on the botched outing? “So who cares if Edgar was an Indian or not? His Indian identity was completely secondary to his primary identity as a plane-crashing asshole.”

Alexie stages a racially-charged morality play at each of Zits’ landing points along the space-time continuum. The first stop is 1975 in Idaho, where Zits occupies the consciousness of Hank Storm, an FBI agent called upon by a tribal council to quell an American Indian uprising. From there, it’s back to Little Big Horn, where Zits awaits Custer inside the mind of a mute boy, then on to Gus, a tracker who undergoes a crisis of conscience. Before returning to himself, our “time-traveling mass murderer” inhabits a flight instructor and then his own absentee father.

Some of these scenes are rendered better than others, but whether he succeeds or not, Alexie always stays a few steps ahead of his readers. One senses that the author is well-aware time travel is a device that can kill a book real quick, so he makes sure to surprise at every turn. The best moments along the way reveal either Alexie’s evocative powers or his zany imagination. For about 10 stunningly descriptive minutes, the tracker’s flight through the woods with a white soldier and an American Indian boy reads much like Cormac McCarthy’s The Road. On the wacky side, the bit concerning Zits’ dad eschews any reconciliatory heart-to-hearts in favor of an anecdote about a pasta-loving bird named Harry Potter.

Alexie’s mention of Harry Potter is apt because this book is a great read for a young audience (one a bit older than Rowling’s audience, however), and for adults as well. Not to worry, though: Zits will not otherwise remind anyone of the world’s favorite wizard. Trust me. I’ve read Harry Potter books. I’ve seen Harry Potter movies. Zits is no Harry Potter. But if you give the kid a chance, he’ll cast a spell.


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