With echoes of Raymond Carver as well as Tom Wolfe’s The Right Stuff and Richard Yates’ Revolutionary Road, The Last Pilot re-ignites the thrill and excitement of the space race through the story of one man’s courage in the face of unthinkable loss.
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Set against the backdrop of one of the most emotionally charged periods in American history, The Last Pilot begins in the bone-dry Mojave Desert during the late 1940s, where US Air Force test pilots are racing to break the sound barrier. Among the exalted few is Jim Harrison: dedicated to his wife, Grace, and their baby daughter.
By the 1960s, the space race is underway and Harrison and his colleagues are offered a place in history as the world’s first astronauts. But when his young family is thrown into crisis, Jim is faced with a decision that will affect the course of the rest of his life – whether to accept his ticket to the moon and at what cost.
The Last Pilot book group guide.
The Guardian Favourite reads of 2017 as chosen by scientists19 December 2017
In Benjamin Johncock’s The Last Pilot, we fast-forward to a group of aviator engineers vying to break the sound barrier in the Mojave Desert. Every perilous flight might be a man’s last and family relationships suffer. Worse, their jobs become redundant when the first astronauts start going into space: if the pilots can’t beat them, should they join?
Observer Hidden Gems of 201619 December 2016
Benjamin Johncock’s The Last Pilot seems at first to be a brilliant pastiche of distinct American classics, the Tom Wolfe of The Right Stuff, the short stories of Raymond Carver and James Salter of Burning the Days. The author’s grasp of the intricacies of life among test pilots and their perilous pursuit of the demon of speed is striking enough. What gives the novel its emotional lift-off is its portrait of a marriage going wrong, harrowed by the pressures of American machismo and familial loss. The novel dovetails these two different agonies and wrests from them a dreadful sense of breakdown, of life being torn apart in front of our eyes. It is achieved by the use of pared-down dialogue and prose that conveys an absolute understanding of its subject: the technical daring of pilots in the age of the space race, and the awareness of their mortality. Despite winning this year’s Authors’ Club best first novel award, The Last Pilot has remained, mystifyingly, under the radar. I do urge you to seek it out.
Helen Macdonald25 August 2016
The Last Pilot made me cry and brought back all my old Right Stuff feels. A brilliant debut. I loved it.
Anthony Quinn, judging the 2016 Authors’ Club Best First Novel Award10 June 2016
The Last Pilot nods to some august literary forebears – Tom Wolfe, Raymond Carver, James Salter – and yet moves to an internal beat of its own. Covering an era of American aviation from breaking the sound barrier to the space race of the 1960s, its dry, laconic prose is as acute in unpicking the mysteries of marriage and bereavement as it is in conveying the vertiginous limits of ambition and daring.
The author’s grasp of the intricacies of life among American test pilots and their perilous pursuit of the demon of speed is remarkable enough. What gives the novel its emotional lift-off is its portrait of a marriage going wrong, harrowed by the pressures of American machismo and by the consuming tragedy of familial loss. Benjamin Johncock somehow dovetails these two different agonies and wrests from them a dreadful sense of breakdown, of life being torn apart in front of our eyes. It is achieved by a stark use of pared-down dialogue and a metalled prose that conveys an absolute understanding of its subject – the technical daring of pilots in the age of the space race, and the awareness of their fragile mortality. The Last Pilot is a memorable achievement, and a hugely deserving winner of the Authors’ Club Best First Novel Award.
The Spectator27 August 2015
Reading Johncock one is reminded of Hemingway, Cormac McCarthy and especially of James Salter's The Hunters,
which can't be a bad thing. Ten out of ten… Johncock navigates the line between what we know and what we think we know with practised ease, and his mastery of the American idiom is perfect. This is a first-rate novel by a major new talent.
Washington Post14 July 2015
Nostalgic and heart-rending... hypnotic. Not only has [Johncock] stripped his narrative down to sleek, aerodynamic paragraphs, but he tells much of this story in clipped dialogue that only suggests the pain swelling beneath the lines... the effect is supercharged Hemingway at 70,000 feet.View source
Joanne Harris13 July 2015
This is by far the best debut novel I've read in years. You can read about the plot elsewhere, but for me, the beauty of this novel is in the balance of the dialogue; the sustained emotion that runs through the whole; the haiku-like simplicity of the prose (and trust me, it takes a long, long time to create that sense of effortlessness). Like so many of America's stories, this is a Western in disguise; a quiet, limpid Western, where the action mostly takes place in the air and in the chambers of the heart. To me, it reads like the reclusive disciple of Cormac McCarthy and St-Exupéry, and if it doesn't get at least on the shortlist of a major literary prize, then the book world is even more clueless than I've always suspected.
Jon McGregor12 July 2015
'Benjamin Johncock is a writer of great craft and integrity. His dialogue is desert-dry, and his sentences crackle with the energy of things unsaid. With The Last Pilot he has done something remarkable: in a novel about the achievements of the space-race, he has shown us that true heroism lies in doing the right thing behind the closed doors of home. Wonderful stuff.'
Boston Globe11 July 2015
A remarkable achievement. Inserting an enigmatic character into one of the great narratives of the 20th century — his astronaut, Jim Harrison, joins the familiar figures of Gus Grissom, Donald Slayton, Jim Lovell, and Ed White — Johncock weaves a beguiling story, set to the soundtrack of Camelot... This is a book that hooks the reader from the very first sentence, setting the scene at the scrub of Cape Canaveral: 'It was a stretch of wretched land bleached and beaten by the relentless salt winds that howled in off the Atlantic, forsaken by God to man for the testing of dangerous new endeavours.'
That it was, but it also was the launching pad for a thousand dreams, or at least for many during Kennedy’s Thousand Days. Some of those dreams are still aloft, held close by dreamers who have aged — but who will surely find comfort in these pages, lit by the fire of 1960s adventure, and also by the blazing beauty of a new literary star.View source
DW Wilson5 July 2015
Carver is the obvious influence, but this is no mere imitation. The writing is machine-cut and spare, understated and taciturn, and like the pilots at this story's centre, Johncock has dared to reach for the stars.
Words of Mercury1 July 2015
Johncock has the Carveresque ability to pack feeling into and between and beneath a few words of dialogue; and the Salterish knack of constructing the tightest of sentences... There are moments of desert heat which recall Cormac McCarthy… Johncock’s language reflects the precision, the machined desperation of the X programme and the Space Race. His sentences are taut, quivering units, vibrant under pressure like the desert heat shimmer or engine casing... Johncock’s novel of marriage and family and endeavour is a truly impressive achievement. Indeed, The Last Pilot is one of the best debuts I’ve read in a long time. Sentence by sentence, it’s one of my favourite books of the last few years.View source
Huffington Post6 April 2015
Benjamin Johncock has written one of the most American novels of the year… The standout features of the narrative are defined in the never-ending pursuit of the American dream and the dedication to the most important aspects of life: Love and Family… The story is well paced and chock full of an array of inspirational characters, but the London based writer's greatest attribute is the exuberant life beaming from the gorgeous prose. Johncock follows in the footsteps of the impressive list of writers that have been capable of creating lifelike dialogue by eliminating quotation marks and a large amount of tags in what is often pages of back forth between its characters. It may be a stretch, but the seemingly simplistic exchanges, that reveal plenty with few words, is reminiscent of the great Cormac McCarthy. Despite the snappy dialogue, the exposition is packed with detail, word choices and sentence structures that add up to equal a distinct and unique new voice in fiction. The beauty sneaks up on the reader after pages of consistent dialogue which shows the careful and precise guidance of the authorial voice that can be trusted fully and wholeheartedly. Johncock writes paragraphs that are often only seen by master craftsman with many books already to their name… this debut novel is undoubtedly one of the most authentic pieces of fiction set in America in years… Benjamin Johncock shatter[s] previous attempts at writing about American life from an outsider's perspective.View source
Kim Edwards6 April 2015
I read The Last Pilot in a single sitting, drawn into this story of a couple's journey through love and grief as it unfolds during the tense early days of the space race. Told in language as beautifully spare – and unsparing – as a desert or a moonscape, The Last Pilot reminds us in powerful ways that the real unknown frontier still lies within the mysteries of the human heart.
Publishers Weekly5 April 2015
An impressive debut... Jim’s story is fascinating, and the author writes with a strong ear for dialogue, which rattles the pages with intensity. A marvellous, emotionally powerful novel.
Big Issue4 April 2015
Well researched and technically detailed, there is plenty in this debut that will please the aviation enthusiast but Johncock’s characters are his real accomplishment. The author offers such emotional insight that readers will find themselves gripped and involved with his protagonist’s difficult choice.