Alexie's "Flight": History's shock treatment
History's shock treatment
FICTION An abandoned and abused teen arms himself and enters a bank in
downtown Seattle, intent on finding targets for his rage; instead, he is
whisked back in time.
By Jim Lenfestey, Special to the Star Tribune
Last update: March 23, 2007 3:51 PM
By: Sherman Alexie.
Publisher: Grove/Black Cat, 208 pages, $13 (paperback).
Review: A fast-paced, throat-grabbing tale of a troubled teen that hits the
bull's-eye of the human heart.
Event: 7 p.m. May 8, Birchbark Books, Lake of the Isles Lutheran Church,
2020 W. Lake of the Isles Pkwy., Mpls.
Few writers grab you by the emotional throat quicker than Sherman Alexie,
and he doesn't let go until the end. Actually, not after that, either.
"Flight," his first novel in a more than a decade, does it again, taking
off with the pace of a rocket, or more accurately a time machine, and
landing right on target, in the molten bull's-eye of the human heart.
From the meteoric triumphs of his poetry (he published four collections
within three years of graduating from college), short-story collections
("The Toughest Indian in the World,"Ten Little Indians"), novels
("Reservation Blues,"Indian Killer") and screenplay ("Smoke Signals"),
Alexie has continued to burnish his already glossy reputation as one of the
planet's premier storytellers.
"Flight" opens with perhaps the most unpromising first-person line in
modern adult literature. Not "Call me Ishmael," but "Call me Zits." But
Very soon, 15-year-old Zits --half Indian, half Irish -- is scaring the
devil out of us with his unpredictable, profane, despairing, violent
behavior. He is willing to torture every one of his 20 foster parents with
a well-placed, ironic "whatever." Willing, it seems, to take his "99 kinds
of shame" and grief and loneliness and loss and rage at parental
abandonment into the marketplace of downtown Seattle and blow away innocent
citizens in the middle of a bank lobby. For no reason and every reason, we
learn along the way: His father abandoned his mother as he was being born.
His mother who loved him died of breast cancer when he was 6. His aunt gave
him $20 and kicked him out at 11.
So he takes flight, racing toward a very ugly nowhere.
Under the influence of one of the few characters who sticks with him, a
seductive Seattle street kid named Justice, he enters the bank lobby with
guns in his pockets and looks around for targets of his fuming despair.
Then we enter a really wild ride -- a "flight" through history as old as
the Indian wars and as new as the aftermath of Sept. 11. Zits inhabits the
bodies of an FBI agent, an Indian scout, a flight instructor, a street
drunk, as all of them play out history's endless cycles of loss, betrayal,
rage and revenge.
But here's the magic. Each chapter returns to Zits and his slow,
disbelieving awakening -- occasionally by tonic notes of individual heroic
redemption, sometimes with the look of a mother toward her child, almost
always with surprising laughter and, near the end, with a story within a
story -- funny, zany and true -- about, yes, a stranger's family parakeet.
Each chapter flashes past like a scene out a plane window, putting us
inside a character who was there at a certain time, and -- this is Alexie's
genius -- we instantly feel what it was like to be that person.
Of course, I won't spoil the ending. It is so unexpected, yet earned and
deserved. But I will tell you, right here in the pages of a public
newspaper, that I cried at the end. Tears streaming down. Cried like a
father and a mother and a child and a baby. And after you read "Flight," if
you tell me that didn't happen to you, too, I'll say you're lying. Or your
heart is too broken to be fixed. But it can't be that. Alexie surgically
shows his readers that there is no heart too broken to be fixed.
This emotional roller coaster occurs in 208 very fast pages, two or three
hours of reading time even if you're as slow as I am. That's about the
length of a long film or airplane flight. Do not miss buying a ticket on
this one. You get the flight and the movie all in one book.
Jim Lenfestey is a former Star Tribune editorial writer. He lives in