He’s also alone. His American Indian dad left him when he was a baby, and his Irish mother died when he was 6 years old. He’s been shuffled from one foster home to another, some good, some bad, some outright abusive. As he says, he was “partially raised by too many people.” He has every right to be angry.
Zits, the first-person narrator of Sherman Alexie’s Flight, won me over right away with his humor and insight:
Yes, I am Irish and Indian, which would be the coolest blend ever if my parents were around to teach me how to be Irish and Indian. But they’re not here and haven’t been for years, so I’m not really Irish or Indian. I’m a blank sky, a human solar eclipse.
It’s a good thing Zits is funny and smart because his actions are not likely to win a reader over. He cusses out his social worker, pushes his foster mother, gets drunk, gets arrested, and eventually makes friends with a guy named Justice who pushes him from anger to deadly rage.
When in the midst of violently acting on his rage, Zits suddenly finds himself in another body, the body of an FBI agent investigating crimes on an Indian reservation in the 1970s. And that’s just the beginning. Like Billy Pilgrim (Flight‘s epigraph is a line from Slaughterhouse Five), Zits is unstuck in time. He lives others’ lives, for a few hours or a few days. Every time, he learns that there’s always another point of view and that things are more complicated than they seem. He learns that corrupt systems are made up of individuals and that lashing out at the system means lashing out at these individuals who may then fight back, creating a never-ending cycle of revenge.
The lessons Zits learns are basic, but important. As an adult reader, I found a lot of the ideas to be pretty obvious, and at times, I thought Alexie belabored his points by having Zits spell out every new thought he had. But for Zits, these thoughts are revelations; and they might be to younger readers as well. The real challenge, however, is in putting those ideas into practice, and the book ends before Zits has the opportunity to do much more than take first steps toward change.
The extremely picky side of me did have some issues with the time travel element of the book. The experiences Zits has aren’t consistent with one another. When he enters a new body, sometimes he can read the person’s thoughts, and sometimes he can’t. Sometimes he’s in control of his new body’s actions, and sometimes he isn’t. In a couple of cases, he does take note of the difference, but there’s never really an explanation. It’s strange: I didn’t need for the time travel itself to be explained, but I needed an explanation for the inconsistencies within the time travel. I think that if an author is going to incorporate some wildly unrealistic element like time travel, it’s important to establish some rules, even if they’re only in the author’s mind. Internal consistency makes it easier for the reader to buy it. The lack of internal consistency made it much more difficult to suspend my disbelief.
As I said, this is a picky point, but it really got on my nerves at times. However, this is not a book about time travel. It’s about a boy and what he needed to learn about life. That boy is an entirely successful creation. He makes the book work, even when it doesn’t.