“Call me Zits. Everybody calls me Zits. That’s not my real name, of course. My real name isn’t important.”
The first few lines of the novel delve immediately into Zits’s struggle with identity, a major theme of the story. Zits does not reveal his real name, Michael, until the final sentence of his narration. By bookending the novel this way, Alexie reveals that Zits's journey involves realizing that he can shape how he is defined. Here, Zits defines himself only by his lack of beauty, which he eventually relates to his pain and sadness. He believes he is not "important," and reinforces that by introducing himself as Zits. These first lines provide a lens through which to understand what Zits learns through his transformations: that he has the power to define himself, rather than to be defined by how he believes he looks to others.
“You’re not real.”
When the bank customer says this to Zits moments before Zits shoots him in the face, he does not specify what he means. However, the mystery of the declaration follows Zits throughout his transformations. Even while in the bank, the phrase makes Zits worry that he is merely a ghost. Later, after witnessing Junior's murder, Zits wishes someone would tell him that he is not real. This concern continues to resonate, suggesting that Zits must take responsibility for his own reality and identity. He cannot simply pretend that his behavior does not have consequences. The question of reality not only feeds the magical realism of the novel, but also forces Zits to learn that he is real and matters because of the behavior he chooses to practice.
“There aren’t any half-breed pale-beige green-eyed Indians here."
When Zits reflects on the Indian community of his second transformation in this way, he reveals a lot about himself and his inner conflict. Zits is half-Native American and half-Irish, but does not identify with either race. His lack of identity also derives from a childhood spent between so many foster families. He has learned to understand himself merely through television shows and books, and has no true family tradition to inform him. Part of what amazes him when he transforms is that he is within a 'pure' Indian community for the first time. These people do not struggle with the complications of mixed identity. Though he soon realizes that even a 'pure' community can be compromised by the human tendency towards cruelty, this is a moment where he profoundly feels what is missing from his life by having temporary access to it.
“Is revenge a circle inside of a circle inside of a circle?”
Zits asks the following question while hesitating before killing the white soldier after the Battle of Little Bighorn. The atrocity that Zits witnesses after the battle teaches him that even a 'pure' community is tempered by the human tendency for cruelty, and the Indian boy's father soon forces Zits to face his own feelings about revenge. Zits has an opportunity to symbolically avenge himself on the whites he has long professed to despise, but feels guilty. He wonders whether revenge truly solves anything, or perhaps only perpetuates behavior that he now questions. This moment, and the revelation it inspires, evokes the bank incident for Zits, thereby marking one of the moments in which he grows to actually confront himself and his resentments. Eventually, he implicitly answers this question by choosing to live a life that eschews revenge.
“The true revolutionary sets himself aflame.”
Justice is self-named; neither the reader nor Zits truly knows who he is. This allegorical nature is part of what makes him appear a philosopher to Zits, and lends credence to insights like this, even though they do not truly grapple with the complexities of life. This simplistic but evocative philosophy appeals to Zits partly because of his own desire for revenge, and partly because he expresses himself through arson. Ultimately, Justice serves a pure expression of a part of Zits that he eventually learns to transcend. In each of his transformations, he questions some of his assumptions, about revolution, about destruction, and about revenge, until philosophies like these only matter as something Zits has to learn to live without.
"I remember I used to be like that little boy, holding tightly on to anybody who showed me even the tiniest bit of love. I haven’t been like that in a long time."
In several incidences, Zits relates to young boys whom he sees as innocent and beautiful. Examples include the Indian boy, the boy at the bank, and Bow Boy, whom Zits describes in the above quotation. This motif reflects the absences that plague Zits. Ultimately, the most significant betrayal in his life came from his father, who abandoned him. However, his psyche was further damaged by the molestation that confirmed his lack of trust and self-worth. As he relates to Bow Boy here, he shows that he is opening emotionally, directly confronting the truth of his own pain. This moment is one of many that occur along his journey towards emotional openness and the subsequent emotional growth.
“I want some respect.”
Zits’s unnamed father reflects the simple yet profound depths of his pain when he repeats this to the man with a cell phone. Part of what Zits learns in his final transformation is that even the greatest villain of his life - his father - acts from the extreme pain in his past. His pain is connected to his race, his alcoholism, his own childhood trauma, and finally, his own behavior, which perpetuates his problems. For instance, while he demands respect, he refuses to show respect to people like Pam and Paul. As Zits realizes his father's own pain, he learns to forgive his father, and ultimately to transcend the pain of that abandonment.
“You keep your sorrow to yourself.”
When the man with a cell phone tells Zits's father to "keep [his] sorrow to [himself]," Zits faces the truth of his own emotional distance. Because of a lifetime of disappointments and abuses, Zits has learned to keep himself closed off from emotional relationships. As a result, his fear and sadness have turned into hatred and anger. Whether Zits or his father is responsible for showing sympathy to the man with a cell phone, the moment reveals that Zits is learning the importance of opening himself. He can no longer hear a sad story - even from a white man - without feeling emotionally affected. This foreshadows the story that Officer Dave tells him about the dead children. When the man responds this way, he is acting more as Zits might have at the beginning of the novel - the very way that Zits is learning to eschew.
“I am my father.”
In each transformation, Zits confronts a part of himself and learns from it. Many of his episodes involve confronting father figures. In his final transformation, he literally becomes his father, and learns the ultimate lesson: he must empathize with people, to understand that everyone feels pain, and is affected by it. Because everyone, even his father, acts in ways that cause shame and guilt, they can be forgiven. By forgiving them, Zits can transcend his resentments and attempt to be a better person. His father never learned this lesson; instead, he let the pain caused by his own father to scare him into running away. Zits does not want to turn out like his father, but the only way to accomplish this is to recognize the ways in which he is like his father, and then forgive the man. In speaking this line, Zits connects himself to all of humanity, and announces his new maturity.
“I ain’t worth shit.”
This phrase, which Zits's father said as a young boy in response to his father's bullying, eerily echoes the pain that Zits feels at the beginning of the novel. What Zits learns in his father's body is that even the great villain in his life acted poorly as a result of deep pain and shame. When Zits realizes that he and his father are more alike than he thought, he implicitly understands that he can never forgive himself for the bank atrocity unless he learns to forgive his own father. Similarly, he cannot grow until he forgives him. This phrase echoes what one of Zits's abusers said to him: “Nobody loves you anymore” (161). By realizing that his father suffered pain and thereby forgiving the man, Zits learns to transcends such hurtful sentiments as these.
Flight Questions and Answers
The Question and Answer section for Flight is a great
resource to ask questions, find answers, and discuss the novel.