Published by Picador on July 7th 2015
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When World War II comes to an end, Jim Harrison stays in the Air Force as a test pilot, pushing the sound barrier in the Mojave Desert. After struggling for years to have children, Jim and his wife Grace are thrilled by the birth of their daughter and happily embrace the changes she brings to their lives. But just as the Space Race begins and the country turns its attention to pilots like Jim, a tragedy strikes the Harrison family and drastically alters the future course.
“You know, she said, we went to this party, the year before, I think, old friend of mine; she’d moved east, New York, after the war. She was a journalist, worked at Time and a bunch of other places, then managed to get a job copywriting for one of those big advertising agencies on Madison Avenue. She spent the whole evening telling me how ruthless it was, how cutthroat and dog-eat-dog. I asked her how many of those men would still go into a meeting if there was a one-in-four-chance of them not making it out alive. We lost sixty-two men over a thirty-six-week stretch once. That’s nearly two a week. I had to buy another black dress; I couldn’t get the one I had clean and dried in time. So I had two, on rotation.”
It sounds like a straightforward, even familiar story, but The Last Pilot has incredible surprises hiding between its pages. In the middle of a testosterone-fueled desert, Johncock brings several extremely real, multi-dimensional female characters to life, though they could have easily been pushed aside to make room for another famous pilot. Along with Grace, we meet Pancho Barnes, a fiercely plucky pilot and bar owner with a wicked mouth who isn’t afraid to show love when it’s most needed. Even the Harrison’s daughter, Florence, is a little fireball of precocious energy with a sweet, curious spirit.
And we come to know these characters not in pages-long descriptions, but through conversations and even the silences between them. The absence of quotation marks takes adjusting, but the stylistic choice makes sense in a dialogue-heavy novel. Johncock’s words soon play out like the script for a film so deftly written that the expressions of actors seem unnecessary. The Last Pilot will certainly be compared to books like The Right Stuff, which is one of several titles listed as a resource, but despite Johncock’s incredible research, this is not a book about the Space Race or even the pilots themselves. It’s a story about love and loss, and the all-consuming fears capable of changing our lives.