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 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.
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.
Eastern Daily Press
A soaring, exhilarating, emotional read, a mesmerising family story... that plumbs the depths of grief and mental illness. He conjures the feel of a place so completely that it is hard to believe Johncock was not raised in the sun-strafed Californian desert.
Cinematic descriptions of the desert setting plus excellent characters and dialogue enliven this debut novel about a test pilot and his family troubles during America's Space Race… The Last Pilot has the literary weight of a Great American Novel, with a limitless desert setting plus the prospect of soon dominating space, and the spare yet profound writing style of Ernest Hemingway or Cormac McCarthy.View source
Times Higher Education
Johncock’s impressive debut takes us back to the era of test pilots and the dawn of the space age… This clever fusion of fact and fiction, combined with a sparse writing style, is a Great American Novel – written by a Brit.View source
The same thrill I felt as a kid watching Apollo 11, I felt reading The Last Pilot – it captures the spirit of the time and the complexities of being human in any time rather beautifully… with its expansive, joyous look at the possibility of humanity – even in the face of tragedy. It’s a reminder that all we need to do, to find hope, is look at the stars and say, 'Next? There.'
Johncock’s seamless weaving of Harrison’s story into real events brings new insights to the emotional landscape of those who took part in the space race… Johncock’s writing is taut and spare yet it has a quietly powerful resonance that evokes deeply emotional imagery... one of the most beautiful novels I’ve ever read about the infinite capacity of the human heart to dream, love, grieve, survive and live despite the heart-breaking impact of adversity.View source
Shiny New Books
Johncock manages to blend the facts with the fiction to give us something that is thrilling, so profoundly touching too, you can’t help but be moved by this novel… [the] absence [of speech marks] adds a clean look to the spare feel of the writing. There is much left unsaid, but it is all there in the spaces… You know that this wonderful debut novel was born out of a love of space.View source
The dense layering of real events, seriously technical language and sustained US vernacular makes for a big, muscular novel, but this is tenderly undercut by the quite different theme of a marriage and a family under unbearable stress... A cowboy in a silver suit he may be, but Jim Harrison’s descent into hell is convincing and moving.View source
The Last Pilot may be Benjamin Johncock's first book, but it reads like he's a seasoned pro, with descriptions and dialogue so rich that it's impossible not to get invested in the characters… You may cry, but this story is worth every tear.View source
For Winter Nights
Utterly fascinating and absorbing as well as intensely exciting… it is simply wonderful – an extraordinary achievement. Its portrait of this little (and extremely unusual) part of America from the late 1940s until the 1960s feels completely authentic and real – quite a feat for a debut British author. Its prose is beautiful, capturing the excitement of the space race every bit as much as the constrained emotions of Jim and Grace, blending history and fiction seamlessly... Johncock dramatises so well the cost of the great human endeavour that culminated in 1969’s Moon landing, a cost that extended beyond the famous and terrible accidents of the space race into the private lives of the daredevil pilot astronauts and their brave, resilient wives. I loved every page of this marvellous book, becoming hooked instantly. I won’t forget Jim, Grace and Florence.View source
Liz Loves Books
This book was as near perfect as it’s possible to be when it comes to genius storytelling, emotionally resonant use of language and the ability to get you right in the heart… Johncock writes with a truly unique and gripping style, there is a quiet passion to the prose that just gathers you into the moment and wraps you up in the feel of it… the heart of it is in the people, their daily struggles, the authenticity of a life less ordinary within an ordinary life – this is where this story shines like a beacon, a very special once in a lifetime read that I truly cannot recommend highly enough.View source
Johncock evokes the years of America's ramp-up to the space program so skillfully, a reader can almost feel the sandblasted landing strips… For an English writer born in 1978, many years after most of the real-world events reflected in this novel, Johncock shows a fine grasp of the times and place. He's earned his 'right stuff' merit badge.View source
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.View source
With its Lucky Strike-smoking hero, pithy prose and terse, no-frills dialogue, this classic tale of love and loss is steeped in the American tradition… Although the idea of the personal and professional in conflict is a familiar one, this big-hearted, atmospheric narrative is charged with the tension of the times and carried along by its compassionately imagined characters.
An epic family drama… I'd recommend The Last Pilot as a strong debut. You can sense the time Johncock has dedicated to honing his prose: this is a lean, evocative novel, which reminded me a little of Niven Govinden’s All The Days and Nights in its tone. The middle section in particular, as Harrison and his wife struggle to come to terms with the severity of their daughter’s illness, is deeply moving and well handled. Harrison’s struggle to maintain the balance between his professional and personal personas is equally well done... The Last Pilot explores the conflict between loyalty to one’s country and one’s family, and a particular form of tight-lipped masculinity which prizes practical skills over emotional sensibility, creating an evocative atmosphere which runs through the text.
We Love This Book: Book of the Week
The speed the US goes into space, and the fear and awe that surrounds it are captured beautifully... The Last Pilot is a touching and fascinating tale of a man forced to choose between family and his place in the history books.View source
On the Literary Sofa
This is without doubt a book about people, not machines. It has a rare emotional openness and vulnerability… The transcendent beauty of the prose owes much to its restraint and rawness, absolutely symbiotic with the story it sets out to tell. It is exquisitely tender – I didn’t so much read this book as feel it.View source
Soho House: 7 Books To Read In July
A thoughtful, somewhat melancholy story that takes place during the 1950s and 60s. It captures a sense of time and place in a very evocative way and explores the personal challenges of one family whilst society changes in the background, in a manner reminiscent of Mad Men. There are some beautiful, sad moments as well as a fascinating insight into the space race and the sacrifices and courage it required.