The blanched beans steamed thin trails that coiled up from a pan in the sink. She watched them twist slowly, the desert flat and wild and wide out from the window behind. For a moment, the steam seemed to rise up from the sagebrush itself; a column of smoke. She looked down at the floor, and gripped the edge of the sink.
Shit, she said. Shit shit shit.
The romance of an endeavour tends to belie its bite. The attrition of test flight and the Red sky at night paranoia of the US space programme in the mid-Twentieth Century are often forgotten in the ecstatic vision of the hanging blue marble and Earthrise. More recently, Commander Chris Hadfield’s dispatches from the International Space Station, apps which alert users to upcoming ISS flyovers, comet landings, and the Pluto flyby have all had us looking up and out again.
Yet these forms of engagement are often aesthetic or, perhaps, sublime: beautiful images from impossible distances; shadowed craters and dunes we feel we should never have seen. Blueprints and technical details don’t make headlines, except in a haze of sublime complexity. And we don’t visit the moon any more.
This is not an airplane, Pancho said, least nothing a pudknocker like you’d understand one to be. It’s a goddamn rocket with a tail; an orange bullet with razor wings and a needle-nose. They call it the X-1. And it’s got one purpose: fly faster than sound.
Benjamin Johncock’s debut novel The Last Pilot begins in 1947; a time when we did not regularly break the sound barrier, when we didn’t know what would happen if we did. Would g-forces become infinite? There was only one way to find out. In the Mojave Desert men climbed into experimental machines and tried to find their limits. X-planes killed pilots, week after week. What kept men alive were skill, decisiveness, and locked down emotions. And luck.
There are no mistakes, Harrison said, just bad pilots.
Test pilot Jim Harrison lives in a hard world of small margins on the edge of a desert. Friends and colleagues regularly “auger in”—crash fatally—and his wife, Grace, needs two black dresses because she can’t get one cleaned before the next funeral. None of the wives know if their husband is next. (“Never know how many places to set for supper, she said.”) Life and talk becomes hard, concentrated. A couple of words here, a few there.
Jim always says there’s no point trying to punch out of a rocket plane; it’s like committing suicide to keep yourself from getting killed.
Johncock has the Carveresque ability to pack feeling into and between and beneath a few words of dialogue; and the Salterish knack of constructing the tightest of sentences: “The sun lulled brittlebrush to early flower, full corollas turning the desert floor yellow.” (This despite the fact that Johncock told a recent event I attended that he hasn’t read Carver or Richard Yates.) There are moments of desert heat which recall Cormac McCarthy; dust bowl fences and silence Steinbeck. (Although that might just be the appearance of alfalfa.)
How does one end up writing like Carver, Salter, and Yates without reading them? Johncock’s language reflects the precision, the machined desperation of the X programme and the Space Race. His sentences are taut, quivering units, vibrant under pressure like engine casing or the desert heat shimmer. This serves not only to express the necessarily locked down emotional life of Harrison and the other test pilots, but also the hard, functional delineation of a moment which expands to fill consciousness.
A real astronaut, my goodness!
As the Space Race heats up and the launch of Sputnik inspires American terror, talk turns to capturing “the high ground of space”. Is sitting on top of a rocket a job for pilots? The age of manned orbits dawns and new dangers appear. The Harrisons have the child they thought they couldn’t conceive. Family complicates Jim’s emotional life, his anxieties. Pilots are in control. Parents so often aren’t. Johncock writes family life very well; capturing the bantering exchanges between parent and toddler with painful precision: the repetition, the excitement, the little manipulations and suggestions involved in getting a child to do anything. (Or stop.) He also captures the pain.
She hated the world for what it had done. The earth, the soil under her feet, everything. It could all go to hell. She couldn’t escape it. It was everywhere. She was part of it. It was her.
By the Sixties Harrison is one of the “New Nine”, the second intake of astronauts, and his marriage is suffering. The timetable imposed by Kennedy’s ambition to reach the moon by the end of the decade has Jim and the other astronauts—Armstrong, Lovell, Shepherd—working ever harder, neglecting their wives ever more. Johncock’s seamless insertion of Harrison into this world is a feat in itself: I resisted finding out whether Harrison actually existed until after I had finished. I would have believed it. His membership of that elite group of pilots and astronauts is entirely compelling. So is his anxiety.
Harrison didn’t say anything. He began to feel not good. He’d stopped using stupid techniques a while ago. He’d realized that he was a test pilot and, if he treated every instance as a test pilot in a tight spot, he could easily maneuver out of trouble. He didn’t realize that this was simply another technique.
So locked down a person as Harrison struggles in the face of tragedy and breakdown. Johncock’s understanding of anxiety informs powerful passages of The Last Pilot. All the while his hard, functional writing exhibits the control established earlier: sentences lengthening and shortening as the mental state of the subject fluctuates; as thoughts pile in and deepen panic. “Don’t fuck up.” Pilots should be in control.
Despite this, there is a great sense of optimism, of determination, in The Last Pilot. It is a claustrophobic optimism, despite the space, the sense of expansion that hovers behind the prose. Progress comes at a cost. Pilots and astronauts accept that; their families have to, if they can. The great weight of detail and responsibility forms and invites a certain kind of person, beneath whose shell a well of feeling must reside in order for their work to continue. Johncock’s sentences evoke this feeling whilst containing it. The tumultuous history of the Space Race is quite a thing to marshal. Johncock’s novel of marriage and family and endeavour is a truly impressive achievement. Indeed, The Last Pilot is one of the best debuts I’ve read in a long time. Sentence by sentence, it’s one of my favourite books of the last few years.
The Last Pilot is out now from Myriad Editions.
My thanks to Myriad Editions for this review copy.