In 1934, William Faulkner — author of “The Sound and the Fury,” future winner of the Nobel and Pulitzer Prizes and high-functioning alcoholic — hitched a motorcycle ride with two barnstormers, a man and a woman.
He showed up again, days later, considerably worse for wear.
This snippet from Joseph Blotner’s massive biography of Faulkner, provided the spark for Taylor Brown’s new novel “Wingwalkers,” a drama of seat-of-the-pants aviation during the Great Depression.
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Every other chapter fictionalizes the young Faulkner but hews closely to the facts.
Faulkner loved airplanes and was mad for flying. In early 1918, he enlisted in the newly formed British Royal Air Force and actually trained as a cadet in Canada. Most sources state that World War I ended before Faulkner could earn his wings, much less alone, but he showed up home in Oxford, Mississippi, in a sky-blue RAF uniform, carrying a cane, affecting a visible limp and dropping remarks about the supposedly silver plate in his skull.
The RAF interlude was notable because Faulkner added the “u” to his name on his enlistment papers, apparently in an effort to sound more English.
Faulkner did become a civilian pilot, as did all three of his brothers. They occasionally staged air shows across Mississippi as the “Flying Falkners” The writer’s youngest brother, Dean Swift Falkner, died in a crash on Armistice Day 1935, in a plane Faulkner had given him.
Alternating chapters follow the adventures of Capt. Zeno Marigold, late of the Lafayette Escadrille, and his wife, “Della the Daring Devilette,” a Georgia belle whose family lost everything in the Great Crash. Zeno and Della barnstorm rural Georgia in a broken-down Curtiss Jenny with a Scotch terrier named Sark. Zeno performs risky maneuvers; Della hangs from the wings, her long red hair trailing like a flag.
For all their efforts, the couple barely make enough to keep the Jenny in gasoline and Zeno in bootleg gin. They have to dodge hazards ranging from evil rednecks to fast-moving swamp fires.
Their dream — Della’s dream, at least — is to head west, make it to California and even Hollywood. Little do they realize this hard-drinking liar they’ve just taken up with is an actual Hollywood scriptwriter and a personal friend of Howard Hawks, director of the flying film “Dawn Patrol.”
Taylor, a native Georgian and former Wilmington resident, knows his territory and knows his Faulkner. An inheritor of the “Rough South” tradition in novels such as “Fallen Land,” “Gods of Howl Mountain” and “Pride of Eden,” he writes scenes of violence and grunge while looking to humanity’s skyward aspirations.
His diction, with its long, complex sentences, doesn’t ape Faulkner, but it produces an effect that proves satisfyingly Faulkneresque.
With its pithy writing and strong characterizations, “Wingwalkers” should appeal to both lovers of Faulkner and aviation buffs.
By Taylor Brown
St. Martin’s, $27.99