Time-traveling light

Mark S. Luce lives in Kansas City, Mo., where he teaches at the Barstow School. He also teaches at the University of Kansas.

SHERMAN ALEXIE never allows readers to wade timidly into the turbulent waters of his novels or stories. Instead, he simply hurls folks into the deep and seems to say, swim if you can -- or dare.

However, in the thin, disappointing new book “Flight,” Alexie’s normally noteworthy prose skills are drowned by a goofy, scarecrow-ragged plot, stock characters and a knock-you-over-the-noggin message better suited to material for high school English classes than the trenchant fiction he’s written before.

In his first novel in more than a decade, Alexie invokes Melville as his narrator intones the opening line: “Call me Zits.” Then the 15-year-old half-Native American, half-Irish punk begins his breakneck story. Abandoned first by his father, then his mother (who dies when he is 6) and booted from his aunt’s house at 10, Zits rips through foster homes (21 and counting), ducks cops, does a little time in juvie and fantasizes about selling the naming rights to all the acne marks on his face (47 and counting) and on his back (too many to count).


Alexie wastes no time in putting Zits on the run again after the teen mouths off to a new foster pop and shoves the new foster mom. The “orphan meteor” bolts into the streets of Seattle. He sees the fuzz, thinks he can duck them, but it “takes them only thirty-five seconds to catch me.”

In lockup, Zits befriends a ghostly fellow named Justice. When they’re released, the two, armed with a paintball gun, start raising hell on unsuspecting citizens. Zits’ homicidal dreams lead him into a bank, brandishing the paintball gun and a real .38 Special. He pulls on both triggers until “the bank guard shoots me in the back of the head. I am still alive when I start to fall, but I die before I hit the floor.”

Only Zits isn’t really dead, and Alexie’s plot becomes a mash-up of historical fiction and sci-fi. Zits zaps back and forth in time, inhabiting the bodies of people who are in decidedly dangerous situations. He still has his mind, but he must battle the brains and bodies of those he takes over. By turns he’s Hank, a 1970s FBI agent who roughs up Native Americans in Red River, Idaho; a mute (by way of a cavalry bayonet) Indian boy watching the Battle of Little Big Horn; Gus, a codger of an Indian tracker leading the cavalry to a massacre; Jimmy, an adulterous pilot who has unintentionally trained a suicide bomber; and, tellingly, his own long-lost, drunk, belligerent and homeless father.

Ostensibly, Zits learns to fight loneliness and anger with patience, maturity and understanding, and to connect with the human qualities of the individual instead of being consumed by hatred or acting on the desire for revenge. As Zits says when he finds himself back at the robbery scene, “I think all the people in this bank are better than I am. They have better lives than I do. Or maybe they don’t. Maybe we’re all lonely. Maybe some of them also hurtle through time and see war, war, war. Maybe we’re all in this together.”

Although one certainly can’t quibble with dreams of a more peaceful, thoughtful and inclusive world, Alexie’s seemingly rushed, hand-tipping prose provides little space for thinking, much less meditation. Add a surprisingly saccharine conclusion, and whatever force Zits’ tale possesses dissipates into the mists of his time travels.

Despite the novel’s flaws, though, Alexie still punches hard at any number of targets, be it stupid white people, self-destructive Native Americans and, implicitly, a violent culture dedicated to a deadly mixture of self-absorption, ignorance and callousness. Through Zits, he speaks plainly and firmly, whether holding court on the inanity of Custer (“a crazy egomaniac who thinks he is going to be president of the United States”) or the phenomenon of televised paint gun competitions (“fake fights where fat white guys run around fake battlefields and shoot each other with balls of Day-Glo dye”).


But Zits wraps self-criticism with a raffish charm, “I mean, jeez, I’m a fifteen-year-old foster kid with a history of fire setting, time traveling, body shifting, and mass-murder contemplation. I think I’m a lot more than just dangerous.”

What’s so frustrating about “Flight” isn’t the flimsy story line or even the obvious and underwhelming message; it’s that Alexie has wasted such an interesting, wisecracking little imp of a narrator. Zits writes and speaks like an angry 15-year-old, but between all the brassiness and bluff he has something to say -- about himself, history, family, otherness and the efficacious consequences of a little tenderness. His vulnerability rings all the more true, since Zits, of course, confuses what he wants with what he needs.

Alexie writes, “I wish I could learn how to hate those rich Indians. I wish I could ignore them. But I want them to pay attention to me.... So I shoplift candy and food and magazines and cigarettes and books and CDs and anything that can fit in my pockets.”

The raw, cyclonic voice that Alexie displayed so well in such short story collections as “The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven” and “The Toughest Indian in the World” appears here in flashes. Unfortunately, it’s the plot that grounds “Flight.” *