The Function of Humor in Sherman Alexie’s Flight

February 18, 2019 by Essay Writer

Humor is a powerful tool: it can break barriers, create friendships, establish cultural unity, or undermine/destroy people or organizations. In ‘ethnic’ literature, humor is often used to create a shared space for readers to come together; “humor helps dispel animosity by bringing cultures together, using shared human failings as a common denominator” (Lowe 442). By poking fun at themselves or their traditions, minority authors are able to create a space that is ‘safe’ for discussion – “ethnic jokes delineate the social, geographic, and moral boundaries of a nation or ethnic group, simultaneously reducing ambiguities and clarifying boundaries” (Lowe 440); through humor, it becomes acceptable to ask uncomfortable questions or examine controversial topics. Using humor, minority writers can bring their own culture closer and at the same time, invite other cultures closer; conversely, humor can be used to threaten dominate social structures that are damaging – the way political cartoons or the Paul Ryan at the gym meme are used to discredit politicians, so too can it be used to further or halt any cause. “Call me Zits” (1) – so opens Sherman Alexie’s novel Flight about a boy, “half Indian, half Irish,” all the way orphaned/abandoned, growing up impoverished and unloved in Seattle. Alexie, who has been called a “mediagenic American Indian Superstar” by Men’s Journal, has come to be known for his themes of poverty, violence and alcoholism among the lives of Native American people, but also for his deft use of humor when telling stories that are tragic in their basis in reality. Humor in ‘ethnic literature’ is a valuable tool that “can lead to deeper understanding on the part of those hearing the joke and greater inclusion in the community for the joker” (Ward 272); this is certainly true for Alexie, and for protagonist Zits, who commonly falls to self-deprecating humor to deal with his depression, mockery to deal with his exclusion from ‘mainstream’ society, and acerbic wit to handle a society that seems structured to keep him from finding happiness or comfort. Using humor in these ways is perhaps universal, but it is that universality that makes it such an effective tool for ethnic, specifically Native American in this case, authors. By framing social and cultural criticisms humorously, they are able to achieve a broader and more receptive audience. In Flight, a novel that deals with issues like poverty, child molestation/abuse, murder, the violence of war, genocide of Native Americans, depression, and the general violence of humanity, the humor threaded throughout keeps the story accessible and allows the message, that these are real events, real tragedies, real social problems that should be dealt with, to come through in a way that is not heavy-handed or preachy. Alexie has said in an interview with NPR that “the two funniest groups of human beings I’ve ever been around are Indians and Jewish folks. So I guess that says something about the inherent humor of genocide.” While the genocide of his people may seem an odd thing to which to credit his humor, Alexie is not alone in seeing the way humor tends to spring from pain and oppression. Kenneth Lincoln writes: “Humor is the best and sharpest weapon we’ve always had against the ravages of conquest and assimilation” (7); for Zits in Flight, his sense of humor and ability to mock both himself and the sometimes desperate situations he finds himself in is a weapon. He preemptively mocks himself with the moniker ‘Zits’ so others can’t make fun of his complexion; he mocks happy families so he won’t have to feel bad for not having one; he mocks capitalist institutions (“Starbucks can kiss my shiny red ass” (16)) that he knows he doesn’t have the means to participate in – all his humor is designed to protect him from further harm. Lincoln writes that “The powers to heal and to hurt, to bond and to exorcise, to renew and to purge remain the contrary powers of Indian humor” (5). Zits’ humor is designed to do all of those things: to heal his own wounds and to inflict wounds on others, to bond with authority figures like Officer Dave, and to exorcise the demons of his foster families – to purge the past so he can move on, renewed, to a new and better future. After one of his many arrests, Zits meets a white boy named ‘Justice’ in jail who urges him to rediscover ‘Ghost Dance’ – a ceremonial dance created by a Paiute holy man that was intended to make “all the dead Indians return and the white people disappear” (Alexie, Flight 31). At first, Zits jokes about the Ghost Dance – perhaps the dancers were originally unsuccessful because they lacked the right music: “they should have had Metallica” (Alexie, Flight 31) – but his jokes hide a seriousness. Zits is a ‘scholar’ of Native American culture, at least as much as he can be using the tools at his disposal (generally television), joking about the Ghost Dance is his way of making it accessible, both to Justice and to himself: “for American Indian writers to mediate the reality of their culture, they must somehow discomfit their readers, throw them off balance. The humorous treatment of tradition, Native American and other, is an excellent means to this end” (Ward 278). Justice introduces Zits to guns and to the idea that he can somehow ‘fix’ all of his problems through violence, though he makes it seem like a game, using a paintball gun to terrify random people on the streets as an initiation to the later violence he will ask Zits to commit. Zits is initially excited by the game, “the notion of play, especially of tricky and deceptive play, describes much of American Indian humor” (Ward 270), he is amused by the way that people who think they are about to be shot, “people think they’re about to die, they all scream like nine-year-old girls” (Alexie, Flight 33). When Justice convinces Zits to go into a crowded public place with a real gun, to ‘Ghost Dance,’ to make people ‘disappear,’ it’s an easy transition for Zits from their ‘game’ with the paintball gun to actually shooting people because “play and danger, risk, chance, feat – it is all a single field of action where something is at stake” (Ward 270). The way that Justice is able to use play/humor to manipulate Zits into doing something that he finds abhorrent is indicative of the power of humor to create social change.After the shooting, in which Zits is shot and ‘dies,’ he ‘wakes up’ in the body of FBI agent Hank Storm in the year 1975. He handles his confusion and fear in this bizarre situation by making jokes. The use of humor to regularize an unconventional situation reflects “a staple of ethnic humor where unmet expectations create opportunities for the most basic kind of comedy, that of incongruity” (Lowe 446). Throughout most of the rest of the novel, Zits continues to ‘wake up’ in different bodies and time periods, always just in time to witness or participate in some act of violence – each ‘life’ that he experiences teaches him something. As the FBI agent, he learns that two Native men who have been venerated as heroes were actually double agents working with the FBI against their own cause; in different iterations of the battles during the American Indian Wars he sees atrocities and violence from both sides of the conflict. Despite the violence and horrors that he experiences, he holds on to his wits and his wit; “humor can be generative, causing the audience to reach new understanding. Humor can unmask the fact that any potential ordering of experience may be arbitrary” (Ward 272). After experiencing life as an Indian child at the Battle of Little Bighorn and seeing countless people slaughtered, maimed, and defiled, Zits wakes up as a soldier in the US Army; he still has the sense of humor to joke about being an “Old Fart Soldier” (Alexie, Flight 82). Zits is learning that his concept of reality, of war, may be an arbitrary construction; that all that knowledge he picked up from the Discovery Channel may have been a creative stretch; that there were horrors and heroes on each side of the conflict. By showing Zits both sides of the American Indian wars, Alexie allowed for interesting social commentary; while a reader might expect a Native American author to only sympathetically portray his own people, Alexie was careful to highlight good and bad on both sides of the conflict. Because Alexie, unlike most history books, is showing a more balanced portrayal rather than taking a side, it becomes clear that his commentary is meant to showcase the pointlessness of the violence portrayed within the novel. The critique is not of white oppression or Indian savagery – those worn out old stories – but instead is a critique of the human tendency towards violence as a solution. Alexie uses humor to great effect, whether describing Custer’s ridiculous arrogance at Little Bighorn, the interplay between FBI agents at IRON/HAMMER, the embarrassments of being a nude, elderly soldier in a crowded camp, his use of irony and wit is always deft. “Ethnic artists use this ploy to great advantage, mounting savage attacks on the central government and mainstream capitalist society in a curiously disarming manner” (Lowe 448); by couching his critique in humor, Alexie is able to say things that might otherwise create controversy. After all, “jokes succeed in liberating an otherwise suppressed or ‘censored’ thought via the disguise of humor” (Lowe 442). If the purpose of this story is as social critique, it is not meant strictly as a critique of past violence. The bits and pieces that make up the present day – Zits’ many letdowns and disappointments, his molestation and abandonment, his interaction with a “good” parent that turned sour due to ego/competition – these are ‘ongoing’ acts in a way that the Indian American War is not. While conflict may still exist between the Anglo world and the reservation, it is rarely physical. The need for a sense of humor in an ‘American’ youth that is at risk in ways that don’t perhaps mean throats will be slit is still vitally important. As Lincoln writes: “the need for a disunited people to create fresh bonds, a new unity, a semblance of society” (53) is vital to the formation of an ‘American’ identity. “Man is the only animal that laughs and weeps … for he is the only animal that is struck with the difference between what things are and what they might have been” (55). Zits can laugh when he finds himself arrested at fifteen, he can laugh when he’s holding court with homeless, drunk Indians, and he can even laugh when he finds himself time traveling between various violent pasts because he always seems to hold the knowledge that things could and have been worse. As Alexie himself said on NPR, “Often you’ll find that when a person is able to best deal with violence and pain and suffering, it’s the person that is able to accept that life is bad, but things are humorous at the same time.” That the humor of minority people often “stems from defeated expectations relates to … constant and repeated failures in his aspirant behavior to reach his or her goals” (Lowe 446) is simply further critique on our flawed society. We have to laugh about what we cannot control. Native people have “survive[d] a shared struggle and come together to laugh about it … even if the humor hurts” (Lincoln 63). The outcome of Zits’ story is positive; he is accepted into Officer Dave’s family, finally offered acne treatment (which will obviously fix all of his problems), and finally accepts his ‘true’ identity, abandoning the moniker ‘Zits’ and asking to be called ‘Michael,’ which is his given name. Perhaps this happy ending is Alexie’s way of saying that humanity too can have a happy ending, if we just treat our ‘acne’ (which is probably the scars of violence and oppression, right?) and find love and happiness among each other. Lincoln says “dark humor … accepts what has happened in hope that it will not happen again,” (Lincoln 61) that can only be the hope of every person after reading this or any other account of the types of arbitrary and extraordinary violence that human beings are capable of – that just because it has happened, doesn’t mean we as a people can’t stop it from happening again. Because “nothing is fixed. Not even injustice” (Lincoln 62). If everyone were to take a frank look at history, and adopt a sense of humor about themselves, perhaps everyone could have a happy ending. Works CitedAlexie, Sherman. Author Sherman Alexie Talks ‘Flight’ Rebecca Roberts. 11 April 2007.—. Flight. New York City: Black Cat, 2007.Lincoln, Kenneth. Indi’n Humor. New York City: Oxford University Press, 1993.Lowe, John. “Theories of Ethnic Humor: How to Enter, Laughing.” American Quarterly (1986): 439-460.Ward, A. Joseph. “Prayers Shrieked to Heaven: Humor and Folklore in Contemporary American Indian Literature.” Western Folklore (1997): 267-280.

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