April 16, 2012


By Colum McCann
~8400 words

A chronicle of the first transatlantic flight, by British aviators Jack Alcock and Teddy Brown in 1919.

The strength of the story lies in the suspense that accompanies the flight narrative: exposure to the elements (wind, rain, snow, and numbing cold), malfunctioning equipment, and a harrowing stretch in which the plane gets lost in heavy cloud cover and comes within a hundred feet of crashing into the Atlantic.

The story is marred, however, by a third-person omniscient voice that jumps back and forth from Alcock to Brown and even to a journalist covering their flight, making it difficult to appreciate the uniqueness of the main characters or even to differentiate between the two. Indeed, it sometimes feels as if we were reading about Siamese twins:
Alcock and Brown rise at sunup, then wait. Turn their faces to the weather. Walk the field. Play gin rummy. Wait some more. They need a warm day, clear skies, a full moon, a benevolent wind. They figure they can do it in less than twenty hours. Failure doesn't interest them […].
It would have been more effective to limit the perspective to either Alcock or Brown and show the reader the world through his eyes. As it is, there is a certain safety in the omniscient perspective—similar to that of a historical narrative—that insulates the reader from the suspense and prevents full identification with the characters.

McCann's mastery of the technical aspects of the flight is impressive, and there are some fine historical details that add a quaint feeling to the narrative ("Some day soon it may be possible to read the daily edition of the San Francisco Examiner in Edinburgh or Salzburg or Sydney.") Unfortunately, the story never feels like much more than an historical account of the voyage.


1 comment:

  1. I'd actually bump this one into the "satisfactory" category. While I agree with much of your review, I didn't feel that the point of view sapped all the energy and suspense. True, there were a couple of occasions where the narrator showed the hand of the future in a way that undercut our wondering; however, there was also a bit of honesty in that: if you already knew something about Alcock and Brown, it would feel pretty artificial for the narrator to gin up the suspense.

    The story does have the aura of a faintly fictionalized historical account. My guess is that it follows the documentary evidence pretty closely. That alone makes it an unusual -- but not entirely disagreeable -- selection for The New Yorker.