Sherman Alexie is an undeniably great writer: At his best, he is powerfully evocative, adept at couching complex emotions in deceptively simple prose. In his confused new novel, Flight, however, his subject matter gets away from him; the novel brims with a moral agenda so heavy handed that it borders on insulting.
Flight's first-person narrator is a kid who goes by Zits, a Native American teenager who has bounced around from foster family to foster family since the death of his mother when he was six.
Zits' life changes when he meets a young man named Justice, an older boy with violent and revolutionary ideas. Justice convinces Zits (in a vague, poorly explained bit) that the only way Zits can redress the karmic wrongs done to Native Americans is by taking a gun to the bank and offing some innocent people.
It is at this point that the nagging suspicion that this book may not be very good coalesces into an active desire to stop reading it and never start again.
When Zits pulls out a gun at the bank, Flight suddenly turns from an indifferently written coming-of-age novel into a baffling and ill-conceived Quantum Leap knockoff. Instead of firing a spray of bullets into a crowd of innocent people, Zits is transported back in time, waking up in the body of an FBI agent in the 1970s. The agent is conspiring to disempower traditional Native American groups, and Zits must play along with this betrayal. From there, Zits is zapped into the body of an Indian boy at Little Bighorn, where he witnesses Custer's Last Stand. As he bounces through time, witnessing and participating in a range of educational historical situations, he comes to realize that it is up to him to break the cycle of violence. He returns to his reality a changed boy, ready to put the right foot forward and turn his life around.
The book's heavy-handed moralizing is all the harder to stomach for the added inanity of time travel—really, Flight could only be more irritating if it ended with Zits saying, "and then I opened my eyes, and realized it had all been a crazy dream." Fans of Alexie would do well to revisit his back catalogue, and leave this one be.