Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Spitfire by Jack Duarte

Greg Graham

I so wanted this book to be good.  The subject matter is fascinating.  For a year during World War II, a very small group of British airmen held off the might of the German Luftwaffe.  The stakes could not have been higher.  If the Luftwaffe gained control of the skies over Britain, then Hitler would have invaded.  Imagine the pressure of being twenty-five years old and realizing that you hold the fate of your nation in your hands.  Imagine the deal with the devil those young fliers made each day as they throttled up their planes and leaped into the sky.  If their death meant saving the country, then so be it.  There exists in these men equal parts of sacrifice and heroism.  The fate of the nation rested on these men who had been schoolboys only ten years earlier.  The subject does not have to be made melodramatic, it is melodramatic.

So where does the novel go wrong?  I think it starts with the characters.  The main character is all good.  He simply cannot do wrong.  He reminds me of Captain America except that the setting is wrong.  Let's call him Lieutenant Britain.  He lacks any personality beyond patriotism and an unflagging sense of duty to his country and to his brother.  He comes complete with a wise cracking, beer swilling Australian side kick, and a hot-headed, equally patriotic younger brother who is reckless.  The brothers fly in the same squadron.  A love triangle forms between the two brothers and an equally patriotic young woman who in many ways represents the fair flower of British society.

The plot is predictable, the characters verge on clichĂ©, and appear to be distilled from the spate of Hollywood movies churned out during the forties to support the war effort. 

One of the reasons why the characters don't click is because the dialogue is stilted.  People, even the British, do not speak in complete sentences.  They seldom answer the question asked, and their logic is never impeccable.  Only the drunken Australian is allowed to indulge in slang.  Everyone else speaks like Basil Rathbone in a Sherlock Holmes movie.

The following conversation occurs at the climax of the book.  Prudence, former girlfriend of the younger brother and now fiancĂ©e to the older brother, is standing beside the runway as the older brother's shot up plane is making an emergency landing.  The both know the older brother has been seriously wounded,  The younger brother is filled with guilt because he and his older brother, the one flying the plane, had a huge fight about Prudence before the older brother took off:

“What's it like Fletcher?  What's he going to do?” Prudence asked anxiously.
“It all depends on how badly Anthony is hurt, and the extent the Spitfire is damaged.  The aircraft is great on flying even when it is damaged. It takes a lot to bring one down.  Anthony, on the other hand, is another story.  If his injuries are too severe, he won't be able to perform all the steps necessary to bring the plane down. We must just wait and see.  Only God knows what's going to happen.”
Prudence looked toward that part of the sky that held everyone's attention.  She made another prayer that her darling would make it safely through all this.

I know a good deal about brothers.  I have four.  I don't think I'd be discoursing about the air worthiness of the Spitfire at a time like that.  Prudence comes off as wooden also.  The British, at the time, may have exhibited the stiff upper lip; but emotion smoldered as hot as it does in everyone else beneath the surface.  The author fails to break that calm exterior to confront the raging fires within. 

Finally, I want the author to rethink his air battles.  They come off unexciting.  I know they weren't.  I remember reading about crew chiefs regularly cleaning vomit and worse out of the cockpits of those planes because the terror was so intense in the free-for-all of dogfighting. 

One bright spot in the book was the night flying.  A very compelling book could be written about those rare fliers brave enough to risk death chasing bombers through a night sky.  They did it without radar relying only on the blue flame of engine exhaust and the glow of fires below.

I would like the author to join a writing group.  A good one would give him excellent feedback.  It is a harrowing experience to have your book vetted chapter by chapter, but if he listens carefully he will learn to avoid the issues I've mentioned above.  They would not have allowed the author to end the book as he did.  You cannot allow a reader to invest two hundred and seventy-eight pages of reading and then not tell him or her whether the main character lives or dies. 
If I were a writing teacher, I would hand the manuscript back at this point and suggest that the author read All Quiet on the Western Front and The Red Badge of Courage before he takes another crack at the novel.  The plot of a good war novel is never man against man.  It is always man against himself.  How does a civilized man force himself to do what must be done in a world where nothing he has learned about love or kindness applies? 

For exciting air battles, I would also suggest God is My Copilot by E. K. Gann.
On the title page of the manuscript, I would write the following:  You can do so much better.

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