The years between the mid 50’s and 60’s in the USA were quite tumultuous. At the same time NASA was being established through test flying all sorts of new airplanes, Eisenhower was forming treaties and beginning the steps that would begin the Vietnam War. The Last Pilot, debut novel by author Benjamin Johncock, tells the incredible tale of these years through the eyes of a test pilot and hopeful astronaut named Jim Harrison.
Spanning nearly 20 years, The Last Pilot starts in 1947 as test pilot Jim Harrison starts testing the first of the X series, X-1, on his way to attempting to break the sound barrier. Moving quickly through the years, Harrison is constantly flying new planes, trying again and again to break records. Living with him in Muroc, California is his wife Grace and a whole bunch of other Air Force pilots, all working towards the same goal as him: to stay ahead of everyone else when it comes to aeronautics. While Harrison does love his work, he feels he has an empty place in his heart that can only be filled by a child. Having been told previously that his wife will never carry children, Harrison all but gives up his dream. That is until, by some miracle, his wife gets pregnant. The couple is overjoyed, but it’s around this time Harrison gets an offer to be one of the first men to go into space. Having to weigh his decisions heavily, Harrison must decide which holds more importance for him, being a full time invested father or the possibility of being the first man in space.
There are almost too many great things that could be said about The Last Pilot. First of all it’s a debut novel. In certain cases, it can take more than one and still less than a half dozen novels by one author before their writing is recognized. In Johncock’s debut, he only needs the 300 pages that The Last Pilot will be printed on. The story is emotionally charged, but still manages to stay focused as to bring in the readers that don’t particularly care for science fiction jargon. The other thing about Johncock is that his writing is incredibly terse, but super efficient. The dialogue between characters is wholly believable and emotionally raw. Character exchanges are often very short worded, but the words used are incredibly effective, conveying loads of emotion and meaning. It’s very reminiscent of Hemingway; in homage, not by ripping off Papa. The journey that the reader makes is simply incredible; traveling through some of the most important years of this country all while being fully invested in the story of one test pilot named Jim Harrison.
Rating – 4.5 out of 5: The Last Pilot is an incredible debut by Benjamin Johncock, showing influence to the times when life, love and words were simpler. There is no doubt this novel will stand among the best of 2015.