The first time my tears started to flow was at the end of page 7, as I recognised the signs of a good man who was feeling profoundly lost.
US Air Force test pilot Jim Harrison is that good man. We meet him in the late 1940s when he’s living out in the Mojave Desert with his wife, Grace, and their baby daughter. By the 1960s Harrison is part of the historic space race between America and Russia and he’s offered the opportunity to be one of the world’s first astronauts. The technical jargon is handled with a lightness of touch that is engagingly informative through quick fire dialogue.
Johncock has captured the inflections of the American accent in the dialogue perfectly, so much so that it triggers memories of every space related movie, news reel, or history programme you’ve ever seen. Honestly, there’s a section of dialogue where he hasn’t even written what it sounds like in cockpit yet I could hear the crackle and beeps of the intercom as the pilot talked to the base. The effect highlights how exciting, exhilarating and terrifying this whole period of history must have been. Johncock’s seamless weaving of Harrison’s story into real events brings new insights to the emotional landscape of those who took part in the space race.
Harrison cheats death every time he’s the air and is quietly confident that he will achieve his dream of becoming an astronaut. He never speaks to his wife about the near misses or the physical limits he forces his body through each day but she knows, and every day she lives with with the knowledge that one day he may not come home.
Which makes what happens to Harrison even more poignant, when his life begins to spiral out of control after a devastating event has a profound impact on his young family and he is faced with a decision that will change the entire course of his life.
Johncock’s writing is taut and spare yet it has a quietly powerful resonance that evokes deeply emotional imagery. Prepare to have your heart shot into the galaxy of human emotion as you read The Last Pilot, just remember to pack plenty of tissues for the moment that Harrison is drawn into a black hole of loss and despair. This is one of the most beautiful novels I’ve ever read about the infinite capacity of the human heart to dream, love, grieve, survive and live despite the heart-breaking impact of adversity.
Published by Myriad Editions
Follow the author on twitter: @benjohncock
I bought my copy from Waterstones Nottingham