The Last Pilot by Benjamin Johncock

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The Last Pilot by Benjamin Johncock

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Category: Literary Fiction
Rating: 4/5
Reviewer: Rebecca Foster
Reviewed by Rebecca Foster
Summary: Cinematic descriptions of the desert setting plus excellent characters and dialogue enliven this debut novel about a test pilot and his family troubles during America's Space Race.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 320 Date: July 2015
Publisher: Myriad Editions
External links: Author's website
ISBN: 9781908434845

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You'd be forgiven for assuming that debut novelist Benjamin Johncock is American: The Last Pilot has the literary weight of a Great American Novel, with a limitless desert setting plus the prospect of soon dominating space, and the spare yet profound writing style of Ernest Hemingway or Cormac McCarthy. Johncock is British, but you can tell he's taken inspiration from stories about the dawn of the astronaut age, including Tom Wolfe's The Right Stuff and films like Apollo 13. His protagonist, Jim Harrison, is a fictional Air Force test pilot who rubs shoulders with historical figures like Chuck Yeager and John Glenn in the quest to break the sound barrier and conquer space.

The novel opens in 1947 in Muroc, in California's Mojave Desert. Jim is part of a team working on the first powered rocket flight. He and his wife Grace have recently been informed that they cannot have children, but life is still full of purpose and humour. They spend jovial nights at Pancho's bar, and even serious incidents like Yeager breaking some ribs falling off a horse turn to comedy as Jim rigs up a broom handle to keep his fellow pilot's cockpit door closed. Racing ahead to 1959, Johncock shows the Space Race heating up. With Sputnik in orbit and the Cold War advancing, Jim is called to Washington for a top-secret meeting about Project Mercury; Eisenhower wants an American in space within the next three years, and asks for volunteers to be shot up into space. Jim's eagerness to take part wanes somewhat when he learns that, against all odds, he and Grace are soon to be parents.

My favourite sections of the novel are about Jim and Grace's interaction with their plucky daughter Florence. I approached the book knowing only that it was about an astronaut and that it was a grief narrative concerning the loss of a child, so I kept expecting disaster. This meant that when Florence's death did come, it wasn't a surprise to me, but I was still taken aback by how suddenly she faded and by how overwhelmingly cruel it felt to have this longed-for, miraculous child taken away. Scenes at the hospital, as Jim and Grace realise how serious Florence's condition is and come to terms with losing her, are very touching.

Florence divides the book into three rough sections: there's the long stretch before her birth, the brief but expansive two years of her life, and the tortuous time that follows. Grace visits Florence's grave every day, but Jim refuses to face his grief and throws himself into work instead. He's chosen as one of nine members of the new Gemini project and relocates to Houston, where he and Grace join a community of astronauts and their perfect wives (see Lily Koppel's The Astronaut Wives Club and The Wives of Los Alamos by TaraShea Nesbit for more on this kind of milieu). As the Cuban Missile Crisis brings events to a head, Jim finds that repressed grief comes back to haunt him in the form of mental illness and marital strife.

Johncock paints his bleak desert setting beautifully:

First light was a diesel spill across the sky. The ground was grey. The hard silence of the desert sung.

The sun lulled brittlebush to early flower, full corollas turning the desert floor yellow.

The sky bled red and the sullen yellow sun sunk fat and weak. Black Joshua trees cut the sharp horizon.

Although the book eschews speech marks, the dialogue flows effortlessly. Whether it's a husband and wife's banter or the jargon of a pre-flight check, Johncock gets each voice absolutely right. He also has some terrific characters, especially Grace and Pancho (another person from history; real name Florence Lowe). Jim himself reminded me of both Don Draper from Mad Men, the damaged war hero with the secret past, and Icarus, the figure from Greek myth who fell because he dared to fly too close to the sun. Even minor characters are described with fresh language, as in 'Baum looked like a tall glass of tonic with no gin, thin and serious and slightly bitter.'

After Jim's spiral downwards, the lovely ending comes as a pleasant surprise. If I allowed myself small points of criticism, I would say that it's a challenge to accept the passage of time in the final 50 pages, and that a keen interest in astronauts is probably a boon to keep readers going through the test flight portions, which to me were much less compelling than the domestic drama of Jim, Grace and Florence. Still, anyone will be able to relate to the contrast between ambition and life's let-downs. As Grace's doctor advises her, 'Live your life. Don't waste it lamenting what you think is required to complete it.'

Further reading suggestion: For more on this period of American history you might try Space Chronicles: Facing the Ultimate Frontier by Neil deGrasse Tyson or The Fourteenth Day: JFK and the Aftermath of the Cuban Missile Crisis by David G Coleman. The novel Gods Without Men by Hari Kunzru has a similar California desert setting.

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Buy The Last Pilot by Benjamin Johncock at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy The Last Pilot by Benjamin Johncock at


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