Barely exceeding 200 pages in paperback, Sherman Alexie's Flight (Black Cat, $13) hardly deserves to be called a novel. Novella, maybe. Or perhaps the teleplay for an after-school special, one seemingly aimed at the young adult shelves of the bookstore. (Appropriate to the age of text messaging and MySpace, most sentences are short, most paragraphs only a sentence long.) Given its near total reliance upon first-person declarative sentences and dialogue, and its paucity of actual descriptive writing, Flight really seems closest to the outline of a stage monologue to be performed by you-know-who.
Sherman Alexie Town Hall, 1119 Eighth Ave., 652-4255, www.townhallseattle.org. $5. 7:30 p.m. Mon., April 23.
It's impossible not to imagine the author's voice speaking for his troubled 15-year-old protagonist, known as Zits, who narrates the story. The kid is no Holden Caulfield. He's more a construct of suffering than a fully realized character: a half-breed Indian with the alcoholic gene, an orphan, a pyro, a survivor of sexual abuse, etc., etc. And then there's his terrible skin, which makes him even more of an outcast. You simply can't visualize him other than as a ventriloquist's dummy sitting on his charismatic creator's knee.
Zits takes his anger and discontent into a Seattle bank with a pair of pistols in his hands. He's goaded into the shooting—if it actually takes place, if any of Flight is more than a fantasy-parable—by a mysterious fellow teen known as "Justice." At the fateful moment of violence, however, our hero is miraculously transported back in time to inhabit different bodies at different historical moments before his own. This is Flight's big device, the kind of time-travel mechanism Alexie might've loved during the sci-fi television programs of his youth. He also links it to the mystical Ghost Dance of the 1890s, the Indians' last-ditch means of resistance against our federal government (one that carries millenarian overtones familiar in today's extremist groups).
Thus, Zits is variously an FBI agent during the '70s, when the bureau is hunting down and killing Indian radicals; a Native American witness to the Battle of Little Big Horn; an Army scout, also during the 19th century, who has second thoughts about the Indian Wars; a well-meaning aviator who's misled into teaching an Islamic terrorist to fly; and finally someone closer to Zits' own sad personal history. They're all invitees to violence or witnesses to violence in one way or another. There's a kind of eternal recurrence at work here, as Zits realizes, "I'm the child that Justice sent to war." Just another innocent in the endless line of historical atrocities. Though he never actually becomes a Palestinian suicide bomber or African boy soldier, you get the idea.
Flight belongs to the canon of 9/11, though it doesn't tackle those events directly or substantially. It's more a work of sympathy than imagination, a needed reminder of the poverty and dispossession on our own streets—never mind Gaza City or Baghdad—that give rise to bloodshed. Zits becomes an agent of homegrown terror, member of an alienated, angry faction that certainly didn't need a passport to enter this country. Still, given the book's anemic execution and stone-skipping plot, you wish Alexie had invested all his talent and ambition in one particular case, one particular figure lured out of his own culture and into the ideology of terror—a fictional analogue to John Walker Lindh in the Taliban, or Adam Gadahn, the kid of Jewish heritage who became "Azzam the American" in Al Qaeda videos—and actually tackled those themes at length in their full complexity.
That seems not to have been his ambition here. As Alexie said of Flight last week on KUOW, "It is very much a socially structured novel. It is very much a novel with a specific social mission. And I think that is to reach out to those kids who have been abandoned and lost, and who see violence and desperation as their only options."
As such, flat and didactic, simple and inspirational, Flight is more lesson than literature.