Sherman Alexie is one of our most gifted and accomplished storytellers and a treasured writer of huge national stature. His first novel in ten years is the hilarious and tragic portrait of an orphaned Indian boy who travels back and forth through time in a charged search for his true identity. With powerful and swift, prose, Flight follows this troubled foster teenager–a boy who is not a “legal” Indian because he was never claimed by his father–as he learns that violence is not the answer.
The journey for Flight‘s young hero begins as he’s about to commit a massive act of violence. At the moment of decision, he finds himself shot back through time to resurface in the body of an FBI agent during the civil rights era, where he sees why “Hell is Red River, Idaho, in the 1970s.” Red River is only the first stop in an eye-opening trip through moments in American history. He will continue traveling back to inhabit the body of an Indian child during the battle at Little Bighorn and then ride with an Indian tracker in the nineteenth century before materializing as an airline pilot jetting through the skies today. During these furious travels through time, his refrain grows: “Who’s to judge?” and “I don’t understand humans.” When finally, blessedly, our young warrior comes to rest again in his own life, he is mightily transformed by all he has seen.
This is Sherman Alexie at his most brilliant–making us laugh while he’s breaking our hearts. Time Out has said that “Alexie, like his characters, is on a modern-day vision quest,” and in Flight he seeks nothing less than an understanding of why human beings hate. Flight is irrepressible, fearless, and groundbreaking Alexie.
Flight is a stunning, powerful look at seemingly unending cycles of violence, betrayal, and revenge.
Told through the voice of Zits, a 15-year-old half-Indian foster child who’s on the fast track toward a bloody end, Flight lets us inside the mind of a character who’s been neglected, abused, and repeatedly failed by the meager systems that are meant to protect him. When we first meet him, Zits is living in yet another foster home with people who don’t care a whit about him. He’s plagued by terrible skin, which is one of countless things that never get fixed for him because he’s just a kid in the system and no one wants to invest the time or money to improve his life. His favorite word is “whatever”, and it sums up his attitude completely. He’s done caring.
When Zits end up in juvie yet again, he meets a strange and magnetic white boy who calls himself Justice, who seems to understand Zits and his struggles in a way no one else ever has. Justice introduces Zits to guns and the means to take revenge for the years of his own miserable life, as well as all the many years of wrongs done to his people.
As Zits pulls the trigger in a heinous act of mass murder, he starts his journey through time and space, landing in the bodies of other people at critical times of violence. In some cases, he’s the one committing atrocities; at other times, he’s a victim. Through each episode, Zits is both witness and participant in acts of great violence, experiencing first-hand the destructive power of people’s quest for vengeance.
Listening to Flight is a particularly chilling experience. Narrator Adam Beach gives Zits an appropriately adolescent voice, yet is also able to shift — as Zits shifts — into an adult FBI agent, an Indian tracker, a downtrodden drunk, and a modern-day cop, each with a distinct personality and style of expression. The narrator’s portrayal of Zits’s increasingly despairing and horrified mindset is powerful. He captures the pain and suffering that Zits sees, as well as the pain of the recovered memories of Zits’s earlier life and the lives of others.
It’s a blessing, I suppose, that Flight is a relatively short book. It’s an intense experience, and doesn’t need to be distilled at all by lengthening the story. Even though the narrative is full of terrible events, Zits’s voice and unique perspective lends the audiobook rare moments of lightness as well. It’s not an easy book or listening experience, but Flight is well worth the emotional investment you’ll have made by the end.
Author: Sherman Alexie
Narrator: Adam Beach
Publisher: Grove Atlantic Black Cat
Publication date: 2007
Audiobook length: 4 hours, 40 minutes
Printed book length: 208 pages
Genre: Contemporary fiction