THE PILOTS

James Spencer, Author . Putnam $23.95 (288p) ISBN 978-0-7862-5390-6

Half a century ago, brave pilots fought in Pacific skies against a determined enemy and helped turn the tide of war. The author was one of them, but only in the past decade—to satisfy the curiosity of his sons, he says—has he written up his memories, fictionalized as a series of linked short stories. Other veterans have produced a deluge of similar works, but the honesty of Spencer's writing, which is lean and understated whether he is describing deadly scenes of action or military horseplay at base camp, sets this volume apart. There is a touch of Tales of the South Pacific to the adventures of Steve Larkin, a fighter pilot and the author's stand-in, who bails out of his plummeting aircraft and lands on a grimly hazardous jungle island inhabited by head-hunting, spear-toting savages. They capture and imprison Steve in a fetid hut, and the situation seems bleak, but after some days of testing his intentions, two nubile young women make it clear he is welcome. Though the episode is described unemotionally, its impact is plain; after the villagers release him, Steve concludes simply "it was odd that he didn't feel more enthusiastic about being rescued." Heroism is about staying alive, but the unit physician, Doc, is so solicitous of his men as to become hopelessly delusional, believing he must save them from sinister friendly fire. Scenes in Australia, where the pilots go for rest, are vivid and poignantly capture the pain of the women there who have lost their men. This is not self-conscious writing, but it successfully balances the beauty of flying with the terrors of life-and-death combat, and is a worthy addition to the literature of WWII. (Feb.)

Reviewed on: 12/23/2002
Release date: 00/00/0000
Genre: Fiction
Hardcover - 268 pages - 978-0-399-14973-3
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