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.

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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. A former literary editor of the Times, she has twice judged the Man Booker Prize. Her books include Ariel's Gift: Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath and the Story of “Birthday Letters”, the novel Seizure and, most recently, Chief Engineer: The Man Who Built the Brooklyn Bridge

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