Flight, By Sherman Alexie
A time-travelling teenager traces the Native American experience
Wednesday 23 January 2008
A 15-year-old, mixed-race, Indian-Irish pyromaniac on the verge of getting kicked out of yet another foster home counts the blemishes on his face. Echoing the opening of Melville's Moby-Dick, he invites his reader to "Call me Zits". But this isn't a quiet meditation on the impoverishment of, and injustice against, Indians in American society. Sherman Alexie has his narrator slamming straight into action over the breakfast table.
One of the most celebrated Native American novelists (Reservation Blues, Indian Killers), Alexie draws on his own experiences of being raised "poor and fragile" on the Spokane Reservation in Washington state to provide Zits with his poignant authenticity. Soon, Zits has "assaulted" his latest foster carers, landed in jail, where he meets a pretty-boy anarchist named Justice, and plotted to rob a bank. The heist goes wrong, and just as Zits realises that he has mown down a lobby full of bystanders he blacks out and wakes up as an FBI agent tracking Indian rebels on the Red River rez ("the asshole of America") in Idaho in 1975.
As the FBI agent Hank, Zits witnesses a government-sponsored murder and realises that a few of his heroes were traitors to their cause, then zips into a boy's body at the Battle of Little Big Horn in 1876. Just at the point of moral indecision, he flies through time again to inhabit the soul of a white Indian tracker who goes native to save a child. As a pilot in the 21st century, he suffers remorse for teaching a terrorist to fly and for a sexual infidelity. Every new reincarnation ends just at the moment when he must take fateful action. As Zits says, "We got blood on us all".
Zits resurfaces in Seattle struggling with the most painful revelation of all: "I am battered, bruised and broken. But I know who I am. I am my father." Alexie delivers the son from his father's sins and, finally, allows Zits to have a name.
The whirlwind tour through history, and the bleak present for Indian and mixed-race peoples in America, is leavened with humour and a staccato prose style. Alexie has an unerring ear for dialogue, and the adolescent Zits stays the course, never overburdened with information or ideology. The novel ends with a whimper rather than a bang and, while this might not be Alexie's best work, it's a powerful story well worth reading.
Harvill Secker, £12.99. Order for £11.69 (free p&p) on 0870 079 8897
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