“Call me Zits.”
This opening sentence of Sherman Alexie’s novel Flight might not rank among literature’s greatest first lines, but it does capture two elements that are representative of the entire book: The strain of youthful formation of identity and the relentless havoc played by hormones on adolescent pores.
Flight is narrated by an angry 15-year-old Native American boy who goes by the self-imposed and sadly appropriate moniker, Zits. Loyal to the tradition of novels narrated by irascible teens, Flight is a first-person exploration of the impact of adult decisions on kids who germinate in extreme environments. Zits has spent most of his life wading in the emotional miasma of juvenile corrections and the foster system, so he is understandably pissed-off.
Inspired by his uncannily intelligent, teenaged cellmate/mentor (facetiously named Justice), Zits finds himself standing, one mid-afternoon, in a crowded bank lobby with a loaded gun. He is prepared to exact revenge for his lifetime of pain, and any target will do. The act is driven by the principles that govern suffering, after all—not fairly assigned blame.
Zits has one foot on the stepping stone between acne-plagued youth and killer. Just before the act, though, and in spite of his trench coat and nervous gestures, Zits appears innocuous to the other patrons and even enjoys a quaint moment sharing a wave with a small boy, fondly characterized by Zits as, “A beautiful little man dressed in khaki pants and a jean jacket.”
After unloading his .38 special into the waiting patrons and subsequently being shot by police, Zits gets pensive. Real pensive. The story shifts gears radically at this point, becoming a science fiction romp through history. At the moment of his death, Zits is transferred into the body of a handsome undercover agent from decades in the past, á la the standard Quantum Leap episode. Zits’ strange journey doesn’t end there. He makes several such jaunts before he settles back into his own body to reap the whirlwind he has caused.
He spends time as a mute 19th-century Lakota boy, son of a chief and witness to the 7th Calvary’s downfall at the Battle of the Little Bighorn. Later, he experiences homelessness in the body of a broken, middle-aged man “… a street drunk, a loser whose belly is torn apart by booze … a cliché now.”
Much of Alexie’s recent work has concerned Native American youth culture—Flight centers directly on it. There is a strong sense of omniscient caring about Zits’ ultimate fate—a gifted handling of issues such as poverty, absentee parents and alcoholism, that is full of raw humor.
Master of the art of self-deprecatory wit, Alexie has made wryness in the face of adversity a consistent character trait for all of his dubious heroes. Flight leaves an odd sensation behind, counting on the readers to employ their most nuanced sensibilities to flesh out the best sense of the story. Zits encourages sympathy, but also irritation. His observations are both keen and naive. He is a murderer, a thief and a runaway with the dirtiest mouth on record, but he also learns how to extend a hand to save people now and then—including himself.