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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Are we taking Woody Allen for granted?

In some ways, Allen is a prisoner of the independence from Hollywood he fought for so long to protect.

Do you know what a state Annie Hall was in when it first emerged from the editing room? Maybe you’ve heard that its original title was Anhedonia – referring to Alvy Singer’s inability to experience pleasure – but it wasn’t just a title. That was the film that Allen shot: a Fellini-esque stream of consciousness, honeycombed with flashbacks to Alvy’s Coney Island childhood, featuring a murder mystery, a Nazi interrogation dream, an elevator trip to hell and a basketball game between a team of philosophers and the New York Knicks.

“Terrible, completely unsalvageable,” said Allen’s co-writer, Marshall Brickman, of the film they saw as a rough cut in late 1976. Only one thing worked: the subplot involving Alvy’s romance with Annie Hall. “I didn’t sit down with Marshall Brickman and say, ‘We’re going to write a picture about a relationship,’” Allen later said. “I mean, the whole concept of the picture changed as we were cutting it.”

His reaction to the success of Annie Hall – his biggest hit at the box office at the time and the winner of four Academy Awards – was the same reaction he had to any of his films that went over too well with the public: he disparaged it, while quietly absorbing its lessons. Bits and pieces of Annie Hall showed up in his other films for the next two decades – Alvy’s Coney Island childhood resurfacing in Radio Days, the murder mystery in Manhattan Murder Mystery, the elevator trip to hell in Deconstructing Harry – while reshoots and rewrites became a staple of most of his pictures, granting him the freedom almost of a novelist working through successive drafts.

“It was remarkable what he did for me,” Diane Keaton later said of Allen’s ear for Annie’s Chippewa Falls language: self-conscious, neurotic, a little jejune in her attempts to sound smarter than she is, “flumping around, trying to find a sentence”. Annie Hall was a breech delivery, as indeed it had to be, as the first film of Allen’s that was almost entirely taken over by another performer, a voice other than his. As a kid growing up in Brooklyn, Allen studied the great magicians and in many ways his greatest achievement as a director has been to make himself disappear.

Introverts often grow up thinking that they are invisible – a fear, perhaps, but a strangely comforting one and something of a sustaining fantasy should they become famous. These days, Allen has the invisibility of ubiquity, noiselessly producing a film every year for critics to take a whack at: is it good Woody or bad Woody?

Allen is a figure occluded by the scandals and speculation of his private life, which still sends tabloid Geiger counters crackling, some two decades after his break with Mia Farrow. The headlines could almost be the pitch for a Woody Allen film, were it not that Allen has already made it. In Zelig, the chameleonic hero is, you may remember, “sued for bigamy, adultery, automobile accidents, plagiarism, household damages, negligence, property damages and performing unnecessary dental extractions”, before finding redemption in some Lindberghian derring-do – an accurate forecast, in a sense, of Allen’s return to making crowd-pleasers in the mid-1990s. Except that Zelig was released in 1983. On the rise and fall of Woody Allen, Allen, it seems, was there first.

His 46th film opens in cinemas on 11 September. In Irrational Man, Joaquin Phoenix plays Abe Lucas, a dishevelled, alcoholic philosophy professor who decides to pull himself out of his funk with a spot of murder, which has long replaced masturbation as the favoured activity of the Allen male. I’ll leave it to Allen’s old shrinks to tease out the connection between comedy and murder, spotted by Freud in Jokes and Their Relation to the Unconscious – why else do we talk of comedians “killing” it, or “slaying” their audience, if not for the release of hostility common to both? And I’ll leave it to the critics to decide the relation of Irrational Man to the earlier Match Point and Crimes and Misdemeanors.

The problem with late Allen is not that the films are bad necessarily but that they are sketchy: spindly and dashed off, the result of a too-easy passage from page to screen. Allen’s has to be the shortest in show business. A film a year, as regular as clockwork, with zero studio interference. He is the one genuine success story to emerge from the big, hairy, super-freak auteurist experiment of the 1970s – the auteur of auteurs. Francis Ford Coppola crashed and burned. Martin Scorsese crashed and came back. Robert Altman was driven into exile, Terrence Malick into early retirement. Who would have guessed that the only film-maker to keep chugging along would be the writer of What’s New Pussycat?

It may tell us something about auteurism as an idea, certainly as a production model in Hollywood, which has always reacted to success by throwing money at it, granting film-makers ever greater control – a dubious drug denying them the artistic constraints and collaboration in which their creativity first flourished. It vacuum-packs their talent.

The one-man-band aspects of Allen’s career mask the juice that he gets from his co-conspirators: Keaton, but also Dianne Wiest, Farrow and Judy Davis. Most of his biggest box-office successes have been co-written: Annie Hall and Manhattan (with Brickman), Bullets Over Broadway (with Douglas McGrath). “The first thing he says is, ‘If you’re not comfortable, change it,’” said Wiest of working on Hannah and Her Sisters.

“It’s as if he’s got a feather in his hand and he blows it and it goes off in a dozen directions,” said Jeff Daniels after starring in The Purple Rose of Cairo. It’s a lovely image, for that is what the film is about: the unruliness of creation running disobediently beyond its creators’ grasp. This is the great Allen theme. It is the theme of Bullets Over Broadway; of his other great farce about artistic creation, “The Kugelmass Episode”, his New Yorker short story about a professor of humanities who drops into the pages of Madame Bovary to conduct an affair with its heroine; and of his one-act play Writer’s Block, in which the characters of an unfinished manuscript push open the drawer and take over the author’s Connecticut house. It is the theme of all of the romances, too, in which women grow, Pygmalionishly, beneath the green fingers of the Allen male, only to outgrow and leave him.

The biggest dead patches in his work, on the other hand, have come when he was most cut off from collaborators: the run of movies he made in the late 1980s and early 1990s with Farrow, clenched in silent agony and overdosed in brown; or the series of comedies that he dug out of his drawer for DreamWorks in the early 2000s – The Curse of the Jade Scorpion, Hollywood Ending, Any­thing Else – long after he had lost interest, or could summon the energy for farce.

In some ways, Allen today is a prisoner of the independence from Hollywood he fought for so long to protect. He encourages his actors to change his scripts as much as they want, but who is going to pluck up the courage to tell the quadruple Oscar winner that kids don’t “make love” any more, or fall for “nihilistic pessimism”, or name-drop O’Neill, Sartre and Tennessee Williams? Jason Biggs, the star of American Pie and American Pie 2 and Allen’s lead in his 2003 film Anything Else? I think not.

One should, however, resist the temptation to give up on him. Midnight in Paris moved with the sluggishness of melted Camembert but Blue Jasmine had the leanness of a cracked whip, in part because in Cate Blanchett Allen found a collaborator willing to go the distance with him on a theme close to his heart: female vengeance. “Take after take after take of very exhaustive, emotional scenes,” recalled Alec Baldwin. “I sat there at the end of the day and thought, ‘She is unbelievable.’”

If Allen’s early films mined comedy from Thurber-like fantasists and romantic Machiavels and his mid-period work drew rueful comedy from reality’s refusal to co-operate, his late work seems most preoccupied by the painful urge to peel the world of illusion, to see it stripped bare. He is now at work on his 47th film, starring Blake Lively, Kristen Stewart, Jesse Eisenberg, Parker Posey and Bruce Willis – and the excitement there is surely at the thought of Willis, once the king of the wisecrack and exploding fireball, now 60, collaborating with a film-maker deep into his own twilight. Both men could well find each other’s groove, or, better still, shake one another out of it. Yipikaye, pussycat.

Tom Shone’s “Woody Allen: a Retrospective” will be published by Thames & Hudson on 11 September

This article first appeared in the 27 August 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Isis and the new barbarism