THE FATAL ENGLISHMAN: Three Short Lives
In his first work of nonfiction, Faulks, a bestselling British novelist, takes up the brief but brilliant lives of three gifted countrymen who died young: painter Christopher Wood; fighter pilot Richard Hillary; and foreign correspondent Jeremy Wolfenden, considered the brightest mind of his generation. Through these tragic tales, Faulks explores the British character as it painfully evolved during the 20th century, spurring both the acceleration and fatal plunge of these vital young men. Wood, a part of the beau monde of 1920s Paris, drew praise from the likes of Picasso and Jean Cocteau. Hillary, who heroically returned to the skies after a fiery dogfight, won renown as a writer in his early 20s. While the sections on Wood and Hillary prove interesting, they are sometimes plodding, and shot through to distraction with background information. The final section on Wolfenden, however, is gripping. Great things were expected of the Eton and Oxford standout even as he became a reckless, alcoholic correspondent in Moscow, drawn into the world of Cold War espionage. While ambition, addiction and arrogance play destructive roles in these lives, homosexuality and the British attitude toward it is a recurring theme that Faulks suggests as a contributing factor. But the complaints here are mostly minor. The writing is solid, at times poetic, and the research thorough. In the end, Faulks manages to jolt the imagination with the tantalizing agony of what-might-have-been. 8 pages of photos not seen by PW. (May 12).
Forecast:The recent release of the film version of Faulks's novel Charlotte Gray and of his new novel, On Green Dolphin Street, may help build a critical mass of readers. This triptych was an acclaimed bestseller across the pond, but with its English setting, a more modest fate seems likely.