It’s about a cynical fifteen-year-old boy called Zits, half-white/half-Indian, who bounces between foster homes and juvenile detention centers. One day he meets a kid named Justice who shows him guns. Zits gears up to commit a large-scale act of violence, but before he can, he finds himself in the body of an FBI agent enmeshed in a plot to kill Indian activists in 1975. From there, he travels to the Battle of the Little Bighorn, then into the consciousness of a nineteenth century Indian tracker, and finally into the body of a modern day pilot.
In Slaughterhouse-Five fashion (which Alexie quotes at the start of the novel), Zits finds himself in different times and places, experiencing moments of horrific violence and its aftermath from a variety of viewpoints. As he travels, he learns that there are neither easy answers, nor easy solutions when it comes to committing violence. Despite Zits’s refrain in the novel, “I just don’t understand people,” he begins to learn compassion and starts to wonder if guns are really as powerful as Justice thinks.
Alexie’s writing is sharp, irreverent, funny and honest. Zits narrates his tale and so the book reads like young adult fiction except for the profanity and violence, which makes it more of an “adult” book. Of course, that’s exactly Zits’ problem – and the problem faced by many juvenile offenders – they have been forced to be adults before they are ready, a potentially dangerous situation.
I see kids like Zits everyday, kids filled with anger and rage, but lacking the kind of empathy that Zits only discovers on his journey through time and space. Perhaps that’s one of the harder tricks of growing up, that discovery that you are not the center of the universe. Alexie does a wonderful job documenting that discovery and how it can change a person and give him hope.