Fuck neutrality. I love everything Sherman Alexie writes. I’ve got eight and a half inches of Sherman, not including the poetry, sitting right on my top shelf. Nelson Algren lives next to him. He was a prose poet too, before his writing went all to hell in a puddle of scotch. Algren's career spans just seven and three-quarters inches.
But Sherman's sober. Before he’s done, I’m hoping for a good ‘nother foot.
Flight is Alexie’s second novel, the first in more than a decade. Indian Killer came out in ‘96, and I loved that one too.
Lots of people didn’t. I gave it to my mother-in-law and it freaked her out. Novels about guys who scalp people aren't for everyone. Sherman’s issues were less resolved in those days. Since then, his work has grown.
Shockingly, I loved Flight too. When Sherman read the first chapter at Town Hall, I heard why. He writes for the ear. He inhabits the lines. He’s what happens when a natural poet who possesses a deep understanding of the spoken word decides to do prose. It lands as poetry. Words remind us that life is beautiful.
Many of Flight’s reviewers sound like my mother-in-law before she’s had her coffee. The Village Voice calls it a simplistic teen novel. The Seattle Times deems it “self-important.” The LA Times whines that Flight is “thin and disappointing.” Our good friends at the Seattle Weekly say it “barely deserves to be called a novel.”
The New York Times, the Washington Post, and the New York Review of Books liked it just fine. They’re smart. Let’s hear it for east coast elitism!
Who can explain? Maybe it’s just garden-variety literary bitchiness. Or maybe they just don’t get it.
By happy accident, I’d reread Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five just months before. Flight inspired me to re-reread Slaughterhouse, and then return once more to Flight. And then Vonnegut died. So it goes.
Flight pays homage to Vonnegut’s masterpiece by giving us the awkward outsider’s view of a world that is both awful and sublime. While Alexie’s touch is grounded in his trademark humor and appreciation for the absurd, the material, like Vonnegut’s treatment of the bombing of Dresden, is deadly serious, and never lapses into cynical farce. Flight’s protagonist careens through time and space to participate in the various highs and lows of which humans are capable, and in the end finds a version of acceptance and peace.
Alexie is, first and foremost, a storyteller, and the time traveling format allows him to piece together a variety of vignettes, any one of which could have developed into a short story of its own. In some ways, this novel isn’t so far off from Ten Little Indians, his last collection of stories. We have a range of characters who hop across class and race and, now, time itself, to offer multiple points of view on the human condition.
We are reminded that, yes, people suck, but at the same time, love transcends. There are a thousand instances of horrible cruelty in any given moment, but there are also epic acts of love and kindness between strangers. There is abandonment and heartbreak, but we also see everyday rituals of affection and the eternal possibilities of redemption.
The climactic scene, which involves a drunken Indian, a harried professional, and a parboiled parakeet, is top shelf Alexie, pulling the best of which we are capable from the wreckage of everyday failure and disappointment. Flight may not, like Slaughterhouse-Five, be an enduring work of genius. But it’s a damn good book, worth reading at least twice.