The Last Pilot is about space, although it’s not really, but it kind of is. The story of Jim Harrison, one of a number of hopeful astronauts working for NASA in the build up to the moon landing, is certainly about space travel but debut author Benjamin Johncock is less concerned with this and more about the space that is left behind after a tragedy. It’s also far and away the best debut novel of the year.
Our main characters are Jim Harrison and his wife Grace. Jim is a classic All American Hero, at least, outwardly so. Inside, it’s very different. Jim and Grace cannot have children, and when a personal tragedy strikes, he retreats inside himself and hides inside his work, plunging himself head first into the astronaut training programme.
Like more modern period characters such as Mad Men’s Don Draper, this is an insight into the stoic post-war American man, and what’s most interesting about The Last Pilot is how it uses history. It would have been very easy for Johncock to have written a novel solely about real life characters (though The Right Stuff has that cornered to an extent), but instead his focus is on two fictional characters. Inserted into the real life narrative of the space race, Johncock’s creations rub up against people like Jim Lovell and John Glenn, so much so that you’d be hard pressed to believe they weren’t always a part of the story. Johncock uses his history well, the book is meticulously researched but the facts never get in the way of the story. Like all the best period novels, facts are used to bolster the story.
The Last Pilot is also a fascinating examination of depression in an era when such things were not typically discussed. Johncock’s writing lends itself to his main character, and his spare writing style is reminiscent of American legends such as Cormac McCarthy, Hemingway, and especially Updike (The Last Pilot reminded me in spades of Rabbit Run), as a reader you worry at first that this style, as pared back as it is, will drain the story of any emotion, but very quickly you’ll know this isn’t true. The Last Pilot left me an emotional wreck, and the writing here stands head and shoulders above most other debut novels.
Any Cop? Yes. This is one of the most confident, assured debut novels I have ever read. Emotionally gripping, and absolutely compelling, I cannot recommend this highly enough.