The Short Version: Jim Harrison is a test pilot for the US Air Force, flying alongside legends like Chuck Yeager as they push – and break – the sound barrier. As America turns its eye to the stars, he must weigh personal tragedy against the chance to go boldly into a new era.
The Review: When you look back on it, especially in our present moment (devoid of such inspiration or relentless drive towards anything but torpor, repression, and mundanity), it seems impossible that we – Americans but also just humanity in general – shot so quickly into the stars. Men broke the sound barrier simply because it was there and, well, why not see what happened next? The Russians put Yuri Gagarin in space in 1961 and we had a man on the moon 8 years later. EIGHT YEARS, using technology that seemed obsolete in comparison to my graphing calculator in high school, let alone the several tiny pocket computers that we still call “phones” today.
What a wonder.
And it is this wonder that Benjamin Johncock seems transfixed by in his classy debut. Enough has been made of his being a Brit writing about not only a particularly American moment in time but a moment populated by some of the most American people to ever live. And this novel is populated by real people – almost entirely, in fact. Jim Harrison (a tremendous pilot’s name, full of the right swagger and masculinity) even replaces a real guy (Elliot See) in the roster of the New Nine and hangs out with everybody from Chuck Yeager to Neil Armstrong to Pancho Barnes.
Most wonderfully, Johncock avoids making these people feel superhuman or really at all special. He makes Harrison seem just as real as them while also making them all seem no more extraordinary than anybody else. These men (of whom I think it’s safe to say that were some of the baddest asses ever to walk the Earth) were just men, subject to the same stresses and thoughts and humanity as the rest of us. This is where Johncock excels, too: the very personal and very distinct sadnesses of losing a child and of a failing marriage.
The novel begins in the late 1940s, just before Yeager breaks the sound barrier, and leapfrogs ever faster towards the late 60s – only about 20 years of time, but what a twenty years. When we meet Harrison and his wife Grace, they’re struggling with Grace’s inability to conceive and the light boredom that comes from being in the middle of the desert with naught but a handful of other pilots and their wives. They are not happy, but they are not unhappy either. Harrison even passes up the first team of astronauts because he thinks it’s silly – and there is a sense that he doesn’t want to leave his work as a test pilot. He is content, if not happy.
But when his wife unexpectedly conceives, the stakes change. And Johncock’s calm, cool, old-school-American-dude prose shifts: there is a heart now, a different sort of heart. Harrison’s first interactions with his daughter brought tears to my eyes and grabbed my heart, reminding me that I look forward to my own version of those moments someday. Having set his hooks, however, Johncock shifts into tragedy – personal tragedy, as opposed to the human but one-step-removed tragedies that had populated the earlier pages of the book. Pancho Barnes (another real person, albeit a much larger than life one) hangs photos of the test pilots who “augur in” above the bar in her saloon and they toast to these deaths, attempting to make light of the fact that it is they (the survivors) who defy death on a daily basis. Statistics like losing more than two men a week to explosions, crashes, and other misfortunes are acknowledged but do not pack anywhere near the emotional wallop of the Harrisons’ loss when it comes. I had to close the book and read something else for a spell to break the sadness, it was that thick.
The rest of the novel shifts from being a fictionalized story about the race towards the future (a race that sputtered out only some 30 years from the start of this novel) to an exploration of private grief in a public life. Harrison volunteers to be one of the New Nine, meaning that he and his wife are now thrust into the spotlight while trying to keep their grief and personal strife under wraps. The tension builds in a Mad Men/60s way, full of Pinter-y British repression threatening to American-ly burst out. And the eventual result, obvious as it is, still comes with the crash of real lives deflated and real hopes dashed. It’s a powerful last third of the novel indeed.
Rating: 4 out of 5. A wonderful look back at a time when the men-who-were-men shot for the stars – and made it, even as their individual lives threatened to buckle under the strain. The same thrill I felt as a kid watching Apollo 11, I felt reading The Last Pilot – it captures the spirit of the time and the complexities of being human in any time rather beautifully. The book is not without its flaws here and there – time begins to leap forward without much acknowledgement as the book nears the end, leaving the reader a bit unmoored if you don’t know exactly when this or that flight went up (I don’t even recall hearing about Kennedy’s death, just suddenly the Daisy Girl tv ad), and the lack of quotation marks will always be a pet peeve of mine, even with Cormac McCarthy. But the novel transcends any little issues with its expansive, joyous look at the possibility of humanity – even in the face of tragedy. It’s a reminder that all we need to do, to find hope, is look at the stars and say, “Next? There.”