‘The Last Pilot’ Review: Blue Murder

Photo credit: Picador

Though a novel of horizons, this debut by Norwich author Benjamin Johncock is as much about the dark threshold on which they verge – what is known as “the Earth’s Shadow” – and without whose contrast their brilliance would be lost. The Last Pilot is a story not about ‘the day’, as it were, but its remains; the struggle for Air Force test pilot Jim Harrison, and his wife Grace, to find a path through the leaden, pendulous hours of loss which threaten to never be disrupted by day again.

For the United States and the Soviet Union, the struggle is upward and outward, toward lunar shores affixed in a weightless beyond. For Harrison and his fellow pilots, it is not so much the direction important to them, but the force with which their lives and selves blur into soothing abstraction. “When will you be home?” is Grace’s refrain, but it is only when Harrison is in this deafening, unanchored foil that he is at home.

Much marked already for its “poetic” and “spare” character, the prose here reaches, at points, a kind of weightlessness its own; and strangely, arrestingly, often in the most ‘loaded’, harrowing scenes: not least of which, the flights.

“{…} looking at the sky.
Roger that, Jim.
Nose-up stall.
I see you, Jim — you’re dropping like a brick.
Copy that.
{…}
Dive speed {…} too slow
Walt, you got a visual from the ground?
Negative.
Twenty-five thousand feet.
Roger.
Twenty four.”

Johncock is careful to provide the reader context before moments such as these (“stored behind him, at minus two hundred and ninety-six degrees was six hundred gallons of lox, liquid nitrogen and oxygen”), and it frees the scenes to unfold unencumbered in the form of a hyper-present-tense normally only experienced in films. It is not “cinematic”, but the opposite – an effected reality; a here and now which cinema so often endeavours toward. A gentle, fleeting death of artifice.

White space aside, the writing here is almost syringe-like as it tenderly draws out essence from subject: the sun “a diesel spill across the sky”; the sky “cyanide blue”; a man “like a tall glass of tonic with no gin, thin and serious and slightly bitter”; Grace, alone on her cold lawn at night, feeling lost, “black” – a token of despair which recurs several times in the book – “as if her bare feet were touching the floor of existence.”

Loss is the axis on which the lives of these characters turn, whether it is another pilot that has “augered in” for good, or the tragedy which befalls Jim and Grace, and it is perhaps for this reason the story feels so unspoken despite its author’s playwright-like favour for dialogue. Though Jim wants someday to reach the moon, he is, in a sense, already there: the Mojave a barren and frozen body of its own, and he – a man who has broken the sound barrier at 70,000 feet – at a loss to fulfill such roles as Husband or Father, which ask only the smallest, simplest of motions.

And, as if her husband were already ‘the man on the moon’, Grace is left perennially alone with her thoughts, which, it turns out, is no isolation, but a march of white noise, a restless gnawing of absence. She is desperate not for Jim to be there, but to be present when he is – both of which grow rarer as the novel progresses, until the silences between their shared words become, in truth, a horrible din – the past a great, painful outcry which threatens never to exhaust itself.

By the end of the novel, that past is the black of the valley, a shadow far across the night sand, and dark as ever. If there is hope, it is not a destination which has yet to be reached, nor a gifted relief not yet arrived from the future; it is, whether first light of day or the late, blue hour, a light which is brighter now for that shadow.

It’s what is left, in other words. One small step, and then another.

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