Sunday, 14 July 2024

Alexie's 'Flight' is his first novel in 10 years

“Call me Zits,” the teenage narrator of Sherman Alexie's novel Flight invites us, as his story of a "time-traveling mass murderer" opens. It closes as he tells yet another new foster mother his real name. {sidebar id=42}


There are many echoes here, of Moby Dick, of Maya Angelou, of Peter Pan, of the childhood of King Arthur as told by T. H. White, in which Merlin enables the boy to inhabit the bodies of fish and birds.


Some might call it derivative, but universal also applies, at least for the vast numbers of alienated. Most teens feel alienated, but Zits has more reasons than most. His Indian father never acknowledged him, his Irish mother died when he was 6. He has spent 15 years in foster homes and jails, and a brief time with an aunt whose boyfriend abused him. He's a genuine Lost Boy, whose native intelligence guides him to the few things worth watching on television, where he learns everything he knows about Indians from the History Channel.


A jail encounter with another young man, a Nietzsche-quoting blue-eyed blond anarchist who calls himself Justice, leads him to a bank armed with a paint gun and a .38 Special, and the shooting spree that ensues lands him in a series of violent events. He becomes an Indian child at the Little Bighorn when Custer attacks, an FBI agent at Red River, Idaho, in the 1970s with his memory of the future intact, knowing the ensuing myth of that event is untrue. He befriends and teaches an Arab to fly and is heartbroken when the man crashes a plane into a crowded Chicago street. And finally, his own defeated father.


This is the first novel in 10 years from Alexie, a Spokane/Coeur d'Alene Indian, who grew up on the Spokane Indian Reservation in northern Washington. As the only Indian at his high school (except for the school mascot), he excelled academically.


Somewhere he picked up a wonderfully caustic wit, which serves him well as a novelist, poet and screenwriter (Smoke Signals, The Business of Fancydancing and 49?, a 2003 short which has been playing at film festivals.)


He has said "I didn't know I was going to be a funny writer," Alexie says. "I just started writing and people laughed. And at first I was sort of offended. I expected, like many young people, that writing was supposed to be so serious—that if people were laughing it couldn't be serious. But I've learned that humor can be very serious. You know if you have people laughing, you can talk about very difficult subjects. I use it as an aesthetic—I suppose I should say anesthetic—and also to be profane and blasphemous. There's nothing I like more than laughing at other people's idea of the sacred."


Young Adult lit? Sure, I guess. But before you give it to one of those mysterious creatures, read it yourself and come to terms with the fairytale ending.


E-mail Sophie Annan Jensen at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..


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