Sherman Alexie’s first prose book (The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven—short stories) was great and I looked for many more from a developing author with vision and tragedy and hope. Unfortunately, his second book of prose, and first novel (Reservation Blues), was a little disappointing; I had not read any of his work since then, though I knew he was continuing to produce and sell both novels and poetry. So, when my book- and tech-maven Alisa recommended Flight I was leery, but the novel is short so I was willing to try it—I never should have doubted her. Published last year, Flight is the story of Zits, a 15-year old, part-Native American boy whose father left his mother before he was born and whose mother died when he was six. As the story opens and you learn these facts, along with some of the sad history of the many succeeding foster families he’s endured, you want to feel bad for Zits: he’s had some tough breaks. Alexie doesn’t let you get there. Zits’ compulsive stealing, verbal and physical abuse of his foster parents, history of arson and arrests, and generally bad attitude put a stop to that. All in the first 15 pages.
What follows is a pell-mell plummet through time and personality as Zits travels through the bodies of several different people from the 19th century to the present. A cavalry scout, a Native American teenager, an FBI agent, a civilian flight trainer, even his own father—all experience death or near death and all are developed with consciousness, their stories told in often gritty detail. Unless you’re bothered by the device (an outside awareness, inside the body of another), it’s a tour de force of description and character all leading to an ending that is, in my opinion, too easy, too pat. Yes, it’s true that epiphany happens and sometimes changes lives forever; and, yes, caring, compassionate actions in the lives of individuals can alter the course chosen by those individuals. Nevertheless, nine years (not to mention 400 years, as is the case for the Native American population) of tragedy are not erased by one or two days of good. I don’t think Alexie believes any differently; I just think he didn’t know how to end the book.
Risky, punchy, fast-paced, and filled with visceral detail—I really admire Alexie’s writing and I look forward to more.