Terrestrials: A Novel of Aviation

Paul West, Author
Paul West, Author Scribner Book Company $24 (384p) ISBN 978-0-684-80032-5
Paperback - 380 pages - 978-0-87951-891-2
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West's latest novel (after The Tent of the Orange Mist) begins with a conceit: the narrator is identified as One Eighth Humbly, an alien from outer space. The densely textured story he tells concerns Booth and Clegg, two pilots who are forced to bail out of their high-speed, top-secret reconnaissance plane when it's shot down over Ethiopia. Booth lands in a salt desert while Clegg hangs from his parachute on the face of a tall cliff. After both are rescued a few days later, each is questioned with truth serums and sent to the Pentagon, where they remain as virtual prisoners. The reason for their treatment soon becomes clear: unknown to Clegg, Booth has been acting as a double agent for (or against) the Russians. The pilots escape and find their way to the Finger Lakes region of New York, where they begin their next career as the owner-operators of a small airline. Their real occupation, however, is making sense of their Air Force mission and their larger fate. Booth and Clegg reflect on the Battle of Britain, black-box conversations from a number of airplane crashes, literature, language and culture, always returning to their encyclopedic knowledge of the history of aviation as a universal metaphor and source of understanding. Casual readers may lose patience with the sheer density of the alien narrator's exposition and carefully calculated flubs and formalities. The persistent, however, will savor the way West, an accomplished stylist, explores the dilemma of Booth and Clegg: knowledgeable yet unknowing, they are two high-tech pilots in Plato's Cave puzzling out the mystery of their terrestrial lives. (Sept.)
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