I had given up reading Sherman Alexie already many years ago – I can’t remember which book of his I was reading thinking I’ve already read it, so repetitive his stories had become book after book. After Joseph Boyden won the 15th annual Giller Prize for his novel Through Black Spruce in November, I realized I need to catch up with and update myself with Native literature. I turned to my wonderful colleague Lee Maracle and asked if she has a copy (I figured trying to get it through the public library after him winning the prize would be hopeless). Based on Boyden’s previous writings, she however wasn’t too thrilled but told me to read Sherman Alexie instead. I mention to her I got tired of him a long time ago but she told me to read Alexie’s latest novel, Flight (2007), is a total turnaround from anything he’s written before and a must-read.
I borrowed Lee’s copy and was immediately put off by the cover of the book: a silhouette of a gun-toting Indian inside a disk used for target shooting (I bet it has a name but this is an area I know nothing about). In these ultra-violent times (whether Gaza, domestic violence, street violence in the city of Toronto alone) I’m sick and tired of warriors of any kind and the glorification of guns. But I did start reading. And I was having hard time to put the book aside once I started.
The book is very funny and deeply moving at once. It is about a teenage boy Zits with a troubled history of foster homes. His Indian father had abandoned him “two minutes after” his birth and his Irish mother had died of cancer. Zits’ aunt didn’t keep her promise to look after him and he enters a downturn circle of foster families none of which work out. No stranger to police, he once again ends up in jail after a skirmish with yet another set of foster parents. In jail, he meets a white boy not much older than Zits who calls himself Justice and who soon becomes Zits’ new best (and only) friend. In the jail, Justice presses Zits to tell him what empowerment means and Zits feels for the first time in long time that somebody actually cares for him and is interested in him.
Not only that, but his new friend seems to know a lot of stuff, like for example what Roosevelt said about Indians and that “revolution is not about spontaneous combustion.” Justice gets out of jail before Zits but promises to come and rescue him soon wherever he ends up. And to Zits’ big surprise, he does. Not many people have kept promises in Zits’ life. They run to an abandoned warehouse where Zits tells Justice about the Ghost Dance. Justice, who had pulled a real piston and a paint gun out of his bag a moment earlier, asks Zits if he would kill a white man if it brought back his parents. Zits doesn’t know the answer but for two weeks, Justice and him talk and practice shooting (after they’ve taken the bullets out). Their targets include newspaper pictures of George W. Bush and Dick Cheney.
“I practice killing people until it feels like I’m really killing them. I wonder how long it would take me to really shoot somebody. I wonder what would happen if I killed ten, twenty, or thirty people. If I killed enough people for real, would it begin to feel like practice?” (33)
Justice is obsessed with the Ghost Dance. Every night he asks Zits: “What would do if the Ghost Dance is real?” or “Do you think the Ghost Dance is real?” When Zits finally is able to respond in the positive, Justice challenges him: “Now you can dance. Now you understand. Now you have the knowledge. Now you have the power. So what are you going to do with that power?”
Zits says he is going to start a fire with his gun. Next day he’s robbing a bank. For a brief moment he contemplates the lives of the people around him – different languages, different religions. But the lives of others don’t count; they must die so Zits parents can return. So he shoots and shoots around him until a guard shoots him in his head, making him fall to the floor.
This is when the story deepens and gets both funnier and more poignant in its wit and anger, in its contemplative yet piercing quest for revenge and truth. It makes you laugh and cry at the same time. When Zits wakes up, it takes quite a while before he understands what’s going on. Instead of being arrested for his bank robbery, he’s in a hospital inside somebody else’s body. That somebody else is no less than a white police officer in the Indian Country in the mid-1970s fighting American Indian activists with his fellow cop, Art.
“I look at Elk and Horse. They’re smiling. I realize they aren’t freedom fighters or anything like that. They don’t care about the poor and defenseless. No, man, these guys just like to hurt people. And I look at the weird light in Art’s eyes. He isn’t a lawman. He doesn’t protect our country. He just likes to hurt people, too.” (50)
Zits reincarnates in several times, each time in a different point in history. His punishment is to bear witness to atrocities of killing and even genocide, hatred and murder fuelled by revenge. There are some happy moments too filled with love and compassion, but it is the revenge-inspired killing that makes Zits reflect life, his own and others. And it’s not only the white man who is driven by and into vengeance and treason.
“All around me, Indian men, women, and children watch me. They all want revenge. They all want me to want revenge. The other white soldiers, bloody and broken, watch me. They know they are going to die and they weep. They want to live. Yes, they are soldiers. They are killers. And they want to live. We all want to live. I don’t know what to do. I feel the anger building inside of me. I feel the need for revenge. Maybe I’m only feeling the old-time Indian kid’s need for revenge. Or maybe I’m only feeling my need for revenge. Maybe I’m feeling both needs for revenge. And then I wonder if that’s the reason I killed all the people in the bank. Did I want revenge? Did I blame those strangers for my loneliness? Did they deserve to die because of my loneliness? Does this little white soldier deserve to die because one of his fellow soldiers slashed my throat? If I kill him, do I deserve to be killed by this white soldier’s family and friends? Is revenge a circle inside of a circle inside of a circle?” (76-77)
I’m reading this when the war rages in Gaza and I read accounts about the death of tens and tens of children and women every day. Especially the stories by those who are witnessing first-hand the massacre from which there is no escape in the narrow strip of Gaza echo in my ears while I read Zits’ also heart-breaking story (see Northshorewoman for these and other stories, videos and analysis). The history of the genocide of the Native Americans and the current carnage in Gaza blend into one another, into a history of revenge and continuous murder, when I read the obviously always-timely book. It’s a universal story I wish didn’t exist, wasn’t part of our humanity.
“This is what revenge can do to you. I lead those one hundred soldiers down the hill toward the Indian camp. We are killers. As we ride to the bottom of the hill and race the short distance across the flats toward camp, I can feel Gus’s rage and grief leaving my body. With each hoofbeat, I lose pieces of my rage, until I am left with only my fear. I had wanted to kill, but now I just want to stop. I throw away my rifle. I don’t want to use it. … I wish I kept my rifle so I could shoot myself. I don’t want to see anymore. I want to be blind. I want to leave this place. I don’t care where I go. I don’t care about which body or time is waiting for be. I will gladly float in the nowhere. I will gladly be a ghost, if I can be a ghost who can’t see or hear.” (88, 91)