The actual moon landings. Photo: NASA/AFP/Getty Images
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This is how we walk on the moon: Benjamin Johncock's The Last Pilot

Despite the decades that have gone by, the early days of space exploration hold an enduring fascination.

The Last Pilot
Benjamin Johncock
Myriad, 320pp, £8.99

In four years, half a century will have passed since human beings first set foot on the moon; it’s been more than 40 years since Gene Cernan became the last man to step off the lunar surface. And yet, despite the decades that have gone by, those early days of space exploration hold an enduring fascination. In part, it’s the cold war drama, a race between the “reds” and the “free world” to establish dominion not only over the earth but across the universe, too; in part, it’s the thrill of technology pushed to its absolute limit, often at the cost of human life. And it’s also the simple wonder of what it meant for men to leave not only the surface of the earth, as the Wright brothers had done in 1903, but to leave its atmosphere, to look back at our only home from the blackness of space.

And – at least in the US – they were all men: men with “the right stuff”, as the novelist Tom Wolfe put it. It is among these men that Benjamin Johncock inserts his fictional pilot Jim Harrison, flying with the US air force out in the Mojave Desert. These are the early years of the space programme, not long after the Russians had put the first Sputnik satellite in orbit and when John F Kennedy announced, in 1961, that the United States would put a man on the moon by 1970. A reader could reasonably ask what any novelist could add to what has already been written about this time. There is plenty out there and a lot of it is awfully good.

On the surface, Johncock’s novel might look clichéd. Jim Harrison drives a sports car, smokes like Mad Men’s Don Draper, enjoys a drink and says things such as: “This is flight surgeon horseshit, Deke!” (Some may recall that line from Ron Howard’s 1995 film Apollo 13; it’s one of the works to which Johncock gives credit in his acknowledgements.) His wife, Grace, holds the fort at home, her life limited by the demands of his job. But sometimes clichés are just, well, true – and the lives that Johncock builds for Jim and Grace transcend their setting. Often his descriptive writing has a clean grace that recalls Cormac McCarthy. When Grace and Jim finally have a longed-for daughter, Florence, who they thought would never come, the novel works a good balance between life in the sky and life at home – and when Florence gets sick, there are hard choices to be made.

Johncock works a couple of neat tricks here: he makes the struggles that Jim and Grace must face at home just as tense as what’s going on in the Mercury and Gemini missions and he uses the real men of the space programme to fine effect. Names such as Schirra, Lovell, Aldrin and Slayton (Wally, Jim, Buzz and Deke) recur but this never feels like a pantomime show of heroes. And one real character who is often forgotten in this cavalcade has a wonderful role to play: Pancho Barnes, a remarkable woman who was an aviation pioneer in her own right – she was the grand-daughter of Thaddeus Lowe, who in essence founded the US air force when he pioneered the flights of manned observation balloons for the Union army during the American civil war. As the proprietor of the Happy Bottom Riding Club, a bar and restaurant out in the Mojave, she catered to those early test pilots and knew them well; her wisdom and courage drive the book forward, as does her foul-mouthed charm.

Harrison is one of the pilots to fly the X-15, a hypersonic jet that reached the edge of outer space.

He thought about what he’d seen up there, across the top, above the dome. Black space, blue earth; the globe curling away beneath him. He’d looked down on everything he’d known, for a brief window, a few minutes. He’d flown weightless, on reaction control, hand on the stick squirting hydrogen peroxide from the thrusters. He felt free. Then he dropped back down into the atmosphere and the earth pulled him down.

It’s that pull back down to earth that’s the real challenge for Harrison in this novel and perhaps that’s not too surprising. But Benjamin Johncock’s story and characters take flight: this is a very promising debut. 

Erica Wagner is a New Statesman contributing writer and a judge of the 2014 Man Booker Prize. A former literary editor of the Times, her books include Ariel's Gift: Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath and the Story of “Birthday Letters” and Seizure.

This article first appeared in the 09 July 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The austerity war

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How The Silence of the Lambs director Jonathan Demme brought humanity to horror

In memory of a great movie man - and a generous soul. 

Professional distance is important as a journalist. I’ll always be grateful to the editor who told me, as I set off to interview a musical hero, “He’s not your friend; he doesn’t want to be your friend; he’s never going to be your friend.” The funny thing about the films of Jonathan Demme, who has died aged 73, was that they felt like the work of a pal. That was his special gift—not only to tell stories dynamically but to do so with an emotional joy and directness that spoke to a common humanity. This may not be immediately apparent if his biggest hit, The Silence of the Lambs, is the only movie of his that you’ve seen, though even that was intensely humane in a way that its imitators never were.

Demme welcomed you in. In his best movies, such as Melvin and Howard, about the brief, unlikely friendship between a Utah milkman and Howard Hughes, or the screwball thriller Something Wild, which was two-thirds riotous and one-third hair-raisingly scary, you felt you were being invited into some gleeful shindig. The characters might have been people he’d run into, whom he was certain you would find every bit as enchanting as he did, and the soundtrack was littered with these bouncing tunes he’d heard and that he simply couldn’t wait to share with you. The sets and costumes had a thrown-together, thrift-shop feel; you could base an entire fancy-dress party around the garish outfits and hairdos from his delicious Mafia comedy Married to the Mob, while some of the most eye-catching effects in his Talking Heads concert film Stop Making Sense are achieved with only a springy household lamp and an imaginative use of light and shadow.

Beneath the bristling, bustling surface of each film was an innate curiosity about people. It is obvious in pictures like Citizens Band, his 1977 comedy about CB radio users, and the stormy but sweet-natured family drama Rachel Getting Married, but let’s take that more challenging example of The Silence of the Lambs, which showed how his generous spirit could infuse even the dankest chambers of genre cinema. Thomas Harris, on whose novel the picture was based, had a fairly cut-and-dried approach to issues of good and evil. Demme was more flexible, which is what made him such an interesting choice of director for that material, as opposed to blood-and-thunder merchants like Ridley Scott (who made the sequel, Hannibal) or Brett Ratner (who directed Red Dragon, based on the same source material as the first Hannibal Lecter film, Manhunter).

Demme began from the starting-point that everyone is human, which is how he and the screenwriter Ted Tally and the actor Ted Levine came to shape the portrayal of the killer Jame Gumb, aka Buffalo Bill. Demme described Gumb not as a bad guy but as a “bad guy who is, in fact, a terribly damaged guy whose life has been a disaster”. No wonder he was upset when the film was accused of homophobia despite the fact that he had gone to great lengths to explain in the movie that Gumb is not gay. “The film very clearly says that Jame Gumb spends his life altering himself to escape from the terrible fact of who he is, and how he’s been abused,” he explained. “So it makes sense that if he’s heterosexual, he’ll try being homosexual, and vice versa. But people heard the line about him having a male lover, and saw him looking effeminate, which was enough for some audiences. But I knew in my heart of hearts that Gumb wasn’t gay, so I was happy that the film opened the door on discussing negative portrayals. I welcomed that other viewpoint.”

He was averse to using violence in his films without also showing that it had consequences — what is his greatest movie, Something Wild, if not a demonstration of that very point? “In Something Wild, I was trying to show that if you behave violently, you will taste violence,” he said in 1988. “And I feel there are definite signals in the first half of the movie that the characters had better straighten up or else.” The shots fired by Clarice Starling (Jodie Foster) at the end of The Silence of the Lambs are not gratuitous or exciting; they really count. “There’s nothing to cheer about when someone is shot dead,” he said. At the end of The Truth About Charlie, his unloved Nouvelle Vague-tinged remake of Charade, he has the hero (Mark Wahlberg) implore everyone to put down their guns. And at the climax of his 2004 remake of The Manchurian Candidate, the weight of the entire film rests on a single bullet. “To whatever extent the glamorisation of gun violence helps in some way in my country to continue the acceptance of guns, I want to remove myself from that equation,” he said. 

There were many reasons to love Jonathan Demme, not least the movies themselves and the fact that he was a sweet and generous soul. (The L.A. Times critic Justin Chang tweeted that he told Demme: “‘Y’know, you’re really nice!’ I couldn’t help it. He really, really was.” I said something similar as I presented him with my Stop Making Sense DVD—professional distance be damned—and asked him to sign it. He wrote: “Keep on rockin’”.) I can think of one more reason to love him. His family has requested that any donations be made in his name to the charity Americans for Immigrant Justice, which is just another sign that we need Demme more than ever just at the very moment that we have lost him.

 

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

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