One Little Indian Boy
In the early ’90s, when I was teaching writing at Fort Lewis College in Durango, I discovered a slim book of short stories in Maria’s Bookshop with the marvelous title The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven. Not only did the collection live up to its flamboyant name, it made me an instant and unrepentant Sherman Alexie fan. The man not only stood myths—Native American and otherwise—on their heads, but managed to show the humor and pathos in both reservation life and our country’s sorry mistreatment of its first occupants, all in the same breathtaking stroke.
Several of the stories in The Lone Ranger and Tonto formed the basis of the film Smoke Signals, for which Alexie wrote the award-winning screenplay. Like the collection, Smoke Signals urges its audience to laugh its way toward knowledge and hence understanding, and the film made Alexie a superstar.
Two novels, two short story collections and numerous poetry anthologies later, Alexie’s newest novel, Flight, moves beyond the sometimes caustic anger of his earlier novels, Reservation Blues and Indian Killer, to strive toward redemption. Alexie notes that “after great pain, people (want to) change their lives ... After September 11th, I sort of made a personal vow to let go of as much of my tribalism as I can … by letting go of (the) tribal response to the tribal act.”
An unabashed attempt to update both the sentiments and the possibilities of Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five, Flight does not always succeed as well as Vonnegut’s ground-breaking novel, but Alexie’s mirroring of Vonnegut’s deceptive simplicity, time-traveling protagonist and thematic concerns offer an intriguing glimpse into the limited options of contemporary Indian youth. Fifteen-year-old “Zits” has had even fewer options than most: an absentee father, a mother who died when he was 6, and 20 foster homes and 22 schools in the nine years since. No wonder he shoots up a bank in the name of justice, only to be shot himself. When Zits wakes up, though, he inexplicably finds himself in the body of an FBI agent in Red River, Idaho, during the civil rights era. Next he’s off to inhabit the body of a mute Indian boy at Little Big Horn, then, in quick succession, those of a 19th century cavalry Indian tracker, a contemporary airline pilot and, finally, his own father.
Zits’ time-traveling story is both unashamed allegory and rage against the storm of contemporary realities. Forced to examine why people hate, betray, kill and destroy, Zits is an apt vehicle for Alexie’s own rage and hope. Both victim and perpetrator, Zits (half-Indian, half-Irish-American) has learned history at The History Channel’s knob, and his quick inhabitings of various bodies throughout time nonetheless come to us through his 15-year-old point-of-view, with enough doses of Alexie’s trademark humor to keep the reader smiling despite the horror and violence.
With each time shift, it takes Zits a few seconds to figure out who, what and where he is, but still longer to figure out whose side he’s on versus who’s side he should be on, an opportunity Alexie uses to good effect to explore whether the good guys and bad guys are really who we think they are. Alexie occasionally overreaches, and the ending’s “Officer Krupke”-style explanation of how Zits went bad in the first place along with his tidy happily-ever-after don’t quite ring true. Still, short, sweet, bitter and brave, Flight is a heroic effort to confront ourselves, where we’ve been, what we’ve become and where we’re going.
Alexie is a brilliant stand-up comic, skewering sacred cows from drunken Indians to self-righteous Republicans and Democrats. He will be speaking at SUB Ballroom C on the UNM campus on Tuesday, June 19, at 7 p.m., in an event sponsored by Bookworks, and he’s missing the basketball playoffs to be there. For ticket information, call 344-8139.