cover image The Last Pilot

The Last Pilot

Benjamin Johncock. Picador, $26 (320p) ISBN 978-1-250-06664-0

Using the early days of the U.S. space exploration program as a backdrop, Johncock’s impressive debut laces fact with fiction to tell the tale of Jim Harrison, an Air Force test pilot, and his wife, Grace. The story opens in the Mojave Desert in 1947, where Jim pushes innovative aircraft to their extremes and rubs elbows with the likes of Chuck Yeager and Jack Ridley. Jim and Grace pine for a child and eventually welcome a daughter, Florence. But Florence becomes gravely ill at the age of two, and despite his vast knowledge of cutting-edge aerospace technology, Jim can do little to save her life. Devastated, he throws himself into his work instead of mourning her death, volunteering for the upstart NASA program and moving with Grace to Houston. Once there, Jim must race against a ticking clock—the president expects a mission to the moon by 1970—and he slowly drifts away from Grace, develops anxious ticks, and suffers through disturbing visions of Florence, all as he prepares to participate in one of the Gemini space shuttles. Jim’s story is fascinating, and the author writes with a strong ear for dialogue, which rattles the pages with intensity. A marvelous, emotionally powerful novel. (July)