The novel is narrated by Zits, a 15-year-old half-Indian boy. He refuses to give his real name.
Zits wakes in a room he does not recognize, to the chiming of an alarm clock he did not set. He prefers his alarm clock to play good music - like that of the White Stripes, PJ Harvey, Yeah Yeah Yeahs, or Kayne West - which he describes as “something to start your brain, cook your guts, and get you angry and horny at the same time” (1).
He thinks to himself about music, and how he enjoys hearing his mother's favorite song - “I Love You More Than You’ll Ever Know,” by Blood, Sweat, and Tears. He loves the band's name, and also the fact that they were successful despite being ugly men, something he thinks was common in the 1970s. He considers whether ugly people might "compensate for their ugliness by becoming great guitar players," or whether "certain guitars choose their homely players like Excalibur chose Lancelot” (2). Regardless, he wishes he lived in the 1970s, since his ugliness might then have made him a rock star.
Zits then reflects more on his mother and her favorite song, which he believes was playing at the moment of his conception. He claims to remember it, and adds that he often remembers people he has never met and places he has never visited. Though he does not consider himself a “mystical bastard,” his attention to detail has given him great insight (2).
When he enters the pink bathroom near his bedroom, he remembers that he is in his new foster home, with a family he does not care about. Looking in the mirror, he counts the forty-seven zits on his face and the “billions” of zits on his back, feeling ashamed both of those blemishes and of being a tall, skinny, ugly boy.
Zits wonders whether his acne was caused by loneliness or by his Indian father, an alcoholic who left Zits and his mother minutes after the boy was born. He explains that he knows nothing of his father's tribal history, but that he does have one photo in which his father's face is covered with acne. His Irish mother, on the other hand, was beautiful, and he enjoys thinking about her voice and her red hair. She died of breast cancer when he was six. He inherited none of her beauty, only her green eyes.
Zits feel unconnected to either his Native American or Irish heritages, and remembers how a social worker once told him he had "never learned how to be a fully realized human being” (6).
His lack of identity also results from having been raised by too many different people. He has lived in twenty different foster homes, and has attended twenty-two different schools. And yet his entire life fits into one backpack. He owns only two pairs of pants, three shirts, four pairs of underwear, a baseball hat, three pairs of socks, and three novels: The Grapes of Wrath, Winter in Blood, and The Dead Zone.
The only Indians he knows are those he meets on the streets of downtown Seattle. He sometimes runs away from his foster homes to drink and beg for money with them. Though he would prefer to socialize with the "rich and educated Indians," only these poorer ones pay any attention to him. He admits that he wants everyone to pay attention to him, and that he acts out by stealing, fighting, and committing arson when he does not get attention. Unfortunately, he is always caught for these offenses, and sent to juvenile jail. Though ashamed of his behavior, he does not know how to change (7).
Zits cannot remember the names of his new foster parents, and he explains how he knows these people only adopted him for the sake of their government check, since the other foster children wear poor shoes. However, he is unperturbed, since he will likely soon run away. Though the Indian Child Welfare Act technically states he should be living with other Native Americans, Zits can be placed anywhere because his father never officially claimed him. He is usually placed with white people, which is mostly fine since his two former Native American foster fathers were both bigger jerks than his white foster fathers usually are.
He remembers Edgar, one of his former Indian foster fathers, who treated Zits nicely until the boy one day beat Edgar in a model airplane race. Angry, Edgar destroyed both planes and grew cold towards the boy. From that incident, Zits learned to hide his emotions to protect himself. Further, he learned that a person's Indian identity did not make him superior. In fact, Edgar’s “Indian identity was completely secondary to his primary identity as a plane-crashing asshole” (11).
He dreads having to leave the bathroom and face his new foster family; he prefers to simply read books and watch television (from which he has learned most of what he knows about Native American culture). Eventually, though, he heads into the kitchen, where he ignores his newest foster mother as she offers him breakfast. He continues to ignore everyone - including the other foster-children - and then speaks dismissively to his foster mother. His newest foster father, who smells of onions and beer, angrily reprimands him. Zits replies “Fuck you” (15).
Dodging his newest foster father's slap, Zits runs from the room, pushing his foster mother against the wall as he leaves.
Outside, he runs until two police officers exit a police car and tackle him to the ground. Zits fights with them until he realizes one of them is Officer Dave, whom Zits likes even though the man has arrested him several times. He believes that Officer Dave sincerely wants to help kids like him, possibly because he had a rough childhood himself. Zits describes Officer Dave as “a big white dude” with a gentle voice.
The officers bring Zits to juvenile jail in Seattle’s Central District, across the street from a Starbucks. There, he is left in a holding cell with three other boys. Eventually, two of the others leave, and Zits is left with Justice, a handsome white boy (whose name we do not learn until later). Justice explains that Zits could take medicine for his acne. Believing he could never afford such medicine, Zits is confrontational with Justice, but they soon settle. As they converse, Justice explains his hatred of all religion, and then promises that he can show Zits how to not only become empowered but also how to use that power.
Zits and Justice talk for hours. Believing that Justice understands him, Zits feels himself growing enamored. He compares Justice to Jesus, Allah, Buddha, and LeBron James, and wonders whether he might be saved from his loneliness.
He is further impressed when Justice apologizes on behalf of white people for attacking the Indians. They agree that the United States is not democratic, and that nobody is truly free. When Zits confesses his affinity for arson, Justice adds that “the true revolutionary must set himself aflame” (25). By the time Justice is released, Zits considers him a father figure and is no longer afraid. They embrace, and Justice promises to later find Zits.
Zits hates the United States, especially the rich people who bully the poor. His anger sometimes feels murderous, and he describes a recurring dream in which he kills and eats a gang of blank men who were attacking him. He reflects on how his life has been filled by a series of absences which he desperately attempts to fill with violence, fire, and hatred.
Officer Dave arrives, and offers Zits one more chance, in a group home. Because he hates group homes most of all, due to their nasty counselors, supervisors, and pedophiles, Zits considers breaking out of the cell first.
Before he can take any action, however, Justice arrives and breaks him out through the window. Together, they flee to an abandoned warehouse in SoDo, an industrial waterfront area of Seattle. There, Justice has built a makeshift home from garbage and office furniture.
For the first time, Justice gives his name, as he shows Zits two guns: a “thirty-eight special” and a more harmless paint gun (29). When Justice explains that he named himself much like Indian elders would name their tribal brethren, Zits thinks of how Crazy Horse, an Oglala Sioux warrior, died in the arms of his best friend Little Big Man, after having been attacked by the U.S. Calvary.
Thinking of all the Indians who have died through the ages, Zits discusses the Ghost Dance with Justice. The Ghost Dance was created by a Paiute holy man named Wovoka in the eighteenth century in the hopes of raising the dead. Wovoka believed that if every Indians danced the Ghost Dance at once, their ancestors would rise to vanquish the white people.
Justice then interrogates Zits about what he would do if the Ghost Dance were real, whether he would "kill a white man" to bring his mother back to life (32). Zits has no answer, and they soon rummage in dumpsters for food.
For two weeks, they hunt for food during the day and talk at night. Meanwhile, Zits practices his aim by shooting at magazine pictures taped on the wall. Though the gun has no bullets, Zits often pretends he is shooting at people and cars from the warehouse. Soon enough, the teenagers are shooting paintballs at people in alleyways and at the park. On one occasion, a man faints when he sees them with the gun. It makes Zits feel powerful.
After each night of shooting practice, Justice asks Zits whether he believes in the Ghost Dance. Though Zits never answers, he eventually realizes that he does. Justice hugs him when he admits his belief, and then explains that he has now found power. When he asks Zits how he will use this new power, Zits replies "I’m going to start a fire” (34).
The next day, Zits enters a bank in downtown Seattle. There, fifty or sixty people of all ages, genders and races are waiting to do business. Caring only about bringing his mother and father back through the Ghost Dance, Zits pulls out both the pistol and paint gun, and starts shooting, dancing through the lobby as he kills. When one man accosts him by saying, "You're not real," Zits shoots him in the face but then wonders whether the man was correct (35). As he wonders whether he and everyone else are actually ghosts, he is shot in the back of the head by a bank guard, and dies before he hits the ground.
Most of Sherman Alexie’s work focuses on modern Native American culture, and Flight is no exception. However, what is unique about this novel is that the question of identity is not clear cut. Zits is a Native American, but does not entirely (or at all) relate to that part of himself. Further, the novel is unique in its use of magical realism, a style that uses magical elements within a realistic setting. Though the book certainly serves as a young adult novel because of its coming-of-age story, it is complicated by both its ambiguities and its mixture of the banal and the fantastic.
Much of the novel's power comes from the electric, colorful first-person narration. Zits not only speaks in a unique, detached, humorous manner, but he also sets up the theme of identity in an explicit if not simplistic way. His diction is the first manner in which we understand his complications. Though he is definitely funny, he is also frequently vitriolic. His anger is often barely concealed behind his jibes and jokes. This contradiction is something we can recognize as true for many teenagers, but its sharp edge ultimately pays off in the violent end to these early chapters.
What makes Zits's voice most believable, however, is the way that he can articulate his problems without truly understanding them. His intense self-consciousness, about both his appearance and his heritage, is best summed up in his refusal to give his real name. He considers it unimportant, since he is not only lacking an identity (as either Irish or Native American), but in fact is not truly cared for by anyone. He recognizes his penchant for anger, yet does not know how to address it.
In many ways, Zits is his own worst enemy, his intelligence compromised by his egotism. His comments about rock bands and a passing reference to Arthurian legend reveal he does not always know as much as he thinks he does. Zits states that Lancelot, a knight of the Round Table, was given Excalibur, the mystical sword of legend. This is incorrect. Excalibur was given to King Arthur. By revealing false information that appears to be true, Alexie quickly indicates to the reader that Zits has more to learn, and that we should not be fooled by his confident voice. Instead, we need to view him largely in terms of his insecurities. He has much to learn.
Largely, his biggest fault is the emotional shield he has constructed for himself. Though he blames that deficit on Edgar, it is more likely that Zits's pain traces back to his own father's failure. We see an instance of how this detachment ill-serves him with his newest foster family. He quickly decides that they do not care about him, and treats him with hostility, probably so he can justify running away (which he has already confessed that he plans to do).
Moreover, Zits's feelings about his race are suitably complex. He both yearns for and despises a relationship with Indians. He wants to hate the rich Indians, but also hates himself for hanging around the poor Indians. Arguably, his complicated feelings are as much about his mixed heritage as they are about his own negative associations with his alcoholic father, who abandoned him. These questions of identity, and the irony that we often hate what we want but cannot have, continue to manifest through the situations that follow Chapter 3.
Certainly, the novel is set within a contemporary, realistic United States. The way Zits talks about his life as an orphan is full of realistic detail. He discusses the complications of foster homes, juvenile jails, pedophilia towards orphans, racism, and more. As Zits sabotages himself in these chapters, we are meant to understand his decisions in terms of his psychological issues. In all these ways, the first chapters of Flight suggest this is a novel of social realism.
However, the novel becomes more mystical with the introduction of Justice, the beautiful white boy. The pacing of the novel is rushed between Chapters 2 and 3, reflecting the boy's teetering state of mind, his belief that he has figured his life out, and that is lacks structure or order.
However, as a role model, Justice works as counterpoint to Officer Dave, whose kindly nature is mitigated by his connection to the world of foster homes that Zits feels ostracized from. Half-philosopher, half-delinquent, Justice serves as both a savior and role model, revealing little of his own life so that he can be a perfect representation of what Zits yearns to be. Justice is intelligent, well-read, un-blemished, in control of his own life, and white. In many ways, Justice is a two-dimensional trickster, in the tradition of Puck, Peter Pan, or Coyote (of Native American origin), all demi-gods who live to create chaos. Zits compares him to several deities, which further evokes the device of the deus ex machina, which enters the plot for the express purpose of solving the unsolvable. Finally, Justice can be considered as an allegory, a simplistic way to achieve some semblance of justice. Of course, the irony that the novel later explores is that this idea of 'justice' ignores the complexities of both the world and our identities.
The magical realism is further introduced through the Ghost Dance. Zits turns to Native American tradition in order to try and grasp his own power, which shows us what he truly wants to embrace. However, the allusion also suggests the complication of Zits's motivation in performing the Ghost Dance at the end of the Chapter 3. The Ghost Dance has a bloodied history - many Native Americans who practiced or attempted to perform the Ghost Dance were killed by the U.S. Army, including many at the Wounded Knee Massacre in 1890. By turning to something with a bloody past for his inspiration, Zits almost assures that his anger will be expressed violently.
The final scene of this section mixes the realistic and the magical perfectly. One of the novel's most prominent themes - violence - is inescapable here, as Zits commits a terrorist act. Nothing else in the book to follow is depicted as ruthlessly as this massacre, which could reflect the world in which Alexie wrote the book. In 2007, violence was no more ruthless than it had ever been, but the United States was more attuned to it in the wake of 09/11 and Columbine. Alexie truly throws his gauntlet down here - he has spent three chapters asking us to empathize with this troubled boy, and then has the boy commit an atrocious act. The rest of the novel will explore the questions this raises through a magical set-up that asks us to consider our new attention to violence in the wake of centuries of similar atrocities.