Benjamin Johncock has written one of the most American novels of the year. The Last Pilot is a historical work of fiction spanning across the defining two decades of the space race from 1947 to 1968. Remarkably, Johncock was not born until ten years after the time period of his debut novel, and not only that, he has spent his entire life residing in England, only ever visiting America for four days in his entire life.
With remarkably accuracy, capturing the emotional weight of a time in history where Americans were excited about possibilities of space and terrified by the implications of the Soviet Union reaching space first, the novel is set over the beautiful Mojave Desert. Our fictional protagonist, United States Air Force test pilot Jim Harrison, is inserted into history. In what is all at once a story of advancements in the explorative ventures of humankind and a heartfelt look at the triumphant times and the turbulent seasons of a young American couple that grows into a family.
The standout features of the narrative are defined in the never-ending pursuit of the American dream and the dedication to the most important aspects of life: Love and Family. The relationship between Jim and his wife Grace is tested given the nature of his profession, the dangers that it presents, and the undeniable truth that Jim could end up losing everything because of it. With the looming belief that they are unable to have children, the concept of escaping into orbit, as physically far away from the sometimes unfair and devastatingly challenging facts of life carries a symbolic weight.
When Grace and Jim finally welcome their daughter Florence into the world, Jim passes up the opportunity to become an astronaut in order to be with his family. As a skilled pilot, Jim had total control over his aircraft, maintained confidence in his abilities, and performed a job that a large majority of Americans would be terrified of and unwilling to take on. The plot device of having a fearless pilot step into fatherhood is used in order to show that often times, the most difficult experiences in life, are the ones that take place right in front of our eyes. When devastating strategy strikes the Harrison family, the technical difficulty and bravery that it takes to be military pilot is translated effectively when compared to the dynamics of overcoming personal adversity forming a fitting and powerful metaphor.
The story is well paced and chock full of an array of inspirational characters, but the London based writer's greatest attribute is the exuberant life beaming from the gorgeous prose. Johncock follows in the footsteps of the impressive list of writers that have been capable of creating lifelike dialogue by eliminating quotation marks and a large amount of tags in what is often pages of back forth between its characters. It may be a stretch, but the seemingly simplistic exchanges, that reveal plenty with few words, is reminiscent of the great Cormac McCarthy. Despite the snappy dialogue, the exposition is packed with detail, word choices and sentence structures that add up to equal a distinct and unique new voice in fiction. The beauty sneaks up on the reader after pages of consistent dialogue which shows the careful and precise guidance of the authorial voice that can be trusted fully and wholeheartedly. Johncock writes paragraphs that are often only seen by master craftsman with many books already to their name. His ability to bring a setting to life is clear in the following section early in the novel:
"First light was a diesel spill across the sky. The ground was gray. The hard silence of the desert sung. In the main hangar, men worked in old fatigues and brown coveralls. They worked in yellow light. When they got tired, they drank dark coffee from the pot at the back. When they got cold, they smoked cigarettes in the janitor's office. Black leads laid thick across the concrete floor. The X-1 sat quiet in the commotion. Harrison ate a sweet roll, drank hot coffee and watched the men work."
This past year marked the first time that The Man Booker Prize opened up to any English language writer instead of being exclusive to a writer from the UK. If the National Book Award opened up its prize to novels not just written by Americans, but set in America, Benjamin Johncock's The Last Pilot would have to be considered for that award. While that will never happen with America's top fiction prize, this debut novel is undoubtedly one of the most authentic pieces of fiction set in America in years. He cites eighteen books at the end of the novel and nine motion pictures that inspired the creation of The Last Pilot, that, combined with just a few days on our soil, was enough for Benjamin Johncock to shatter previous attempts at writing about American life from an outsider's perspective.