THE LAST PILOT
By Benjamin Johncock
Published in 2015 by Picador.
Reviewed by David Eric Tomlinson.
In English musician David Gray’s song “Ain’t No Love,” the narrator’s insistence against the existence of God is belied by the double negative: “This ain’t no love that’s guiding me.” There is a higher intelligence behind the lyrics, arguing against the singer’s despair, ready to help when he’s ready to receive it. English author Benjamin Johncock has pulled off a similar trick with his debut novel The Last Pilot, a lean heartfelt story about the psychological demands of the U.S. space program.
We begin in 1947, in Muroc, California, “the largest slab of uninterrupted flatness on Earth,” as the Americans are gunning to break the sound barrier. In this high-stakes world, the simplest mistake gets you killed. Hanging on the walls of the Happy Bottom Riding Club, where pilots blow off steam after a day pushing their aircraft – and themselves – to the limits, are the portraits of dead test pilots who have “augured in,” or crashed and burned: “The screen door clattered shut, rattling the dead men hanging inside.”
In Muroc, the secret to staying alive is not getting rattled in the first place. For fear of damaging the almost inhuman level of confidence required to perform such dangerous duties, wives are afraid to share nightmares with their pilot husbands. Bravely, in an environment where communication can be deadly, Johncock decides to give us the story of a marriage. Main character Jim Harrison is a stoic, dispassionate Air Force test pilot, the best of the best, rubbing elbows with the likes Alan Shepard and Deke Slayton and Chuck Yeager. Frustratingly disconnected from his emotions, Harrison nevertheless manages, in the occasional unguarded moment, to nurture his sad, lonely, beautiful wife Grace.
Fearing she was infertile, Grace had essentially given up on starting a family. “Live your life,” a doctor advises. “Don’t waste it lamenting what you think is required to complete it.” But then the impossible happens: Grace becomes pregnant with a daughter, Florence, breathing much-needed life into what begins – though necessarily, stick with it, Johncock knows what he’s doing – as an airless, oppressive novel. Readers of Hemingway will recognize the strong silent types and the fatalistic descriptions peppering the first act: “First light was a diesel spill across the sky … The sky was cyanide blue.”
Miraculously, though, everything changes when the Harrison’s daughter shows up. Johncock’s ear for dialogue is at its best when writing Florence: “Mommy’s gonna take me to the beach soon and we’re gonna go cause we have to play in the sand, cause we’re going to the beach.” Reading this child’s simple, innocent nuggets of wisdom, I found myself laughing out loud. And in the second act, when Jim Harrison’s heart starts to thaw, and then crack, and then shatter altogether, the novel becomes impossible to put down.
With the exception of one or two unnecessary allusions, Johncock juxtaposes mostly relevant historical references alongside the emotional struggles of his characters. As Harrison becomes the fastest man alive, we see Sputnik streak bleeping across the heavens; we watch the space race kick into high gear, just as Florence is diagnosed with a dangerous illness; and when the Harrisons’ hearts are broken by grief, Jim flees to Houston, recruited by NASA’s Gemini program. Against the cathartic confrontation of the Cuban missile crisis, we get the long-overdue dissolution of the Harrisons’ marriage. And finally, during the near disaster of the Gemini VIII mission, when Dave Scott and Neil Armstrong roll into a life-threatening spin and are forced to abort, Harrison’s world spins completely out of control.
Johncock executes this third act perfectly. Because Harrison has been such a cool, composed character, logical to a fault, his breakdown is a genuinely sad and terrifying thing to behold. This stunted, tough-talking novel about invincible men and the desperate women who love them – or try to – flowers into a hopeful, touching story about friendship, human frailty, and faith. Like the lyrics in David Gray’s song, Johncock performs a bit of literary jiu-jitsu here, expanding our perspective from one man to the entire human race, and suggesting that all of us might benefit from recognizing a power higher than the self.
Gray sings: “Pulling back you see it all / Down here so laughable and small / Hardly a quiver in the dirt / This ain’t no love that’s guiding me.”
The author begs to differ.
David Eric Tomlinson has been a member of the Writers’ League since 2013. He was born and raised in Oklahoma, educated in California, and now lives in Texas. You can learn more about him by visiting his website.