Sherman Alexie and Flight
Like most of Sherman Alexie’s work, Flight focuses on modern Native American culture and the experience of being Native American in present day America. Unlike most of Alexie’s writing, Flight primarily examines identity and presents an abstract view of identity through it’s main character, Zits, who is so unsure of his identity that he’s named himself after the acne that covers his face and back. From the beginning, Zits is shown to be both concerned about understanding his identity and struggling to do so. In the first chapter, the reader learns that Zits’ perception of Native American culture is primarily based on things has seen on TV or read in books; in short, his view of Native American culture has essentially been created, or at least manipulated by white culture. He has no direct connection to his Native American identity.
Because of the lack of connection to his own culture and his struggle to find his own identity in a white world, Zits is strongly attracted to violence. At it’s core, Flight is primarily about Zits’ journey to overcome his attraction to violence. His early intentions of violence are most obvious in his interactions with a boy he calls Justice, whom he meets in juvenile jail. Early in their first encounter, Justice apologizes on the behalf of white people for the violence against Native Americans that has endured through centuries of interaction. This is why Zits calls him Justice. When Justice later frees Zits from the jail, they discuss this issue deeper and Zits’ brings up the Ghost Dance. The Ghost Dance was conceptualized by a Paiute holy man named Wovoka in the 1700s in the hopes of raising the dead; Wovoka believed that if every Native American danced the Ghost Dance at once, their ancestors would rise to vanquish the white people. Justice asks Zits if he would kill a white man to bring his mother back to life, though Zits doesn’t answer. Zits’ affinity for violence is further explored when Justice shows him two guns, a .38 special revolver and a paintball gun. Zits practices his aim with the empty revolver and together he and Justice are soon shooting strangers with the paintball gun. On one occasion a man faints from the sight of the paintball gun, which Zits says makes him feel powerful. The third chapter culminates with Zits’ dancing through a crowded banking shooting both the revolver and the paintball gun, before a bank guard “fatally” shoots him in the head.
The true potency of Flight exists in the magical realism that permeates the novel. Magical realism is defined as the acceptance of magical or unreal actions in a work that otherwise remains rational. The first signs of magical realism are seen in the mystical presentation of the character Justice and Zits’ attempt at the Ghost Dance in the bank, but ultimately it is the “flights” that Zits takes in the following chapters that give magical realism true meaning within the novel. In these flashbacks, Zits transforms into different historical characters, each with a different lesson for him to learn. After his “death” in the bank scene, Zits awakes in a motel room and quickly learns that he is not in his own body, but that of a middle-aged FBI agent named Hank Storm. Through interactions with his partner, Zits learns he has travelled back in time to Idaho, where Native American activists were fought in their effort by the FBI. Zits’ watches his partner Art torture and kill a young Native American named Junior. At Junior’s death, Zits vomits, though he quickly remembers his actions at the bank and admits that he’s no better than these men.
In the next flashback, Zits takes the form of a mute Native American, during the 18770s and specifically during Custer’s Last Stand. Upon seeing the bodies of Custer and his men, Zits’ remembers the bank and feels disgusted with his actions. He watches as his fellow Native Americans desecrated the soldiers bodies, even seeing a grandmother cut one soldier’s penis off and placing it in his mouth, so he can be shamed in the afterlife, and is further disgusted. The mute Native’s father pushes Zits into a circle, where a teenage soldier from Cutler’s army is waiting, and Zits’ realizes he is expected to kill him as revenge for his muteness. He does so, but actively resists by closing his eyes. It is this scene that Zits realizes his ability to choose between acting violently or not.
In the next “flight,” Zits’ find himself in the body of Gus, a skilled tracker who is supposed to lead the US cavalry to an Indian camp near the Colorado river. This time, Zits is immediately repulsed by his mission and he plans to lead the soldiers astray; in this vision Zits does not hesitate to act. However, he finds Gus harder to control than the hosts of his other visions. Not only that, but Zits also finds himself having memories that clearly belong to Gus, in particular memories of white corpses that had been mutilated and stripped naked by Native American warriors. He feels Gus’s grief and rage within himself and leads the soldiers to the camp. He is beginning to realize anybody is capable of atrocious acts if their own conditions are bad enough. As he leads the cavalry down the hill into battle, Zits realizes, “This is what revenge can do to you.” He throws his rifle down and storms into battle, basically attempting to lead Gus to suicide. However, when he sees a fellow soldier pick up and run away with a young native boy, Zits instead helps and hits the general of the cavalry in the face to keep him from shooting the escapees. This section both highlights Zits’ ability to make decisions and simultaneously shows why decisions can be hard to make. When he is fully aware of Gus’s memories Zits actually leads the soldiers to the camp, but upon actually seeing the violence, he tries to limit it however he can. This is seen both in throwing his rifle down and helping the soldier and boy escape. Late in the chapter, Gus’s body is too frail to continue with the escapees, so Zits plants himself against a tree and plans on shooting anybody pursuing them. However, when the general appears, he finds it harder to pull the trigger than he had anticipated. In this scene, he is distinctly growing beyond violence.
The next vision differs from the others as it doesn’t initially focus on violence. In this flashback, Zits occupies the body of Jimmy, a pilot who is obsessing about his adultery. Zits sees a memory of Jimmy’s, in which he is preparing for sex with his mistress when his wife walks in. Zits is taken aback and disgusted to be in the body of an adulterer. However, Zits also has to experience a memory of Abbad, an Ethiopian man who Jimmy had taught to fly. Although early in the memory Abbad denies the possibility of such action, Zits soon learns that Abbad and his wife and hijacked and intentionally crashed a plane. Zits feels Jimmy’s pain from the betrayal; Jimmy had considered Abbad his best friend. Zits watches helplessly as Jimmy gets in his plane, flies to the ocean, and pushes the nose of the plane toward the water. Zits feels like he is preparing for his own suicide and thinks “We’re all the same people. And we are all falling” as the plane plummets into the water. This is the first section without a Native American theme and initially it does not even focus on violence.