'An impressive debut... a marvellous, emotionally powerful novel.'—Publishers Weekly
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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.
Set against the backdrop of one of the most emotionally charged periods in American history, The Last Pilot by Benjamin Johncock 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
A quick read with punchy, spare dialogue that makes the action pop… The Last Pilot awakens feelings of nostalgia for missions many of us recall as if they occurred yesterday, rather than in the Sixties. At that time, the astronauts were presented as larger than life heroes, endlessly brave. Johncock portrays them as more vulnerable, mere mortals, resulting in a contemplative book that will spark many a conversation about who did what, and when, in the Space Race.