quinta-feira, 12 de março de 2015

Review: ‘The Last Flight of Poxl West’ by Daniel Torday By Michiko Kakutani



Review: ‘The Last Flight of Poxl West’ by Daniel Torday

In summary, the plot of Daniel Torday’s evocative first novel, “The Last Flight of Poxl West,” may sound a little schematic. A 15-year-old boy named Eli worships his uncle Poxl, who writes a well-received memoir about his heroic exploits as a bomber pilot during World War II. But in the wake of the book’s success, Eli discovers that Poxl is not exactly who he has pretended to be.
Mr. Torday recounts this story in alternating sections — excerpts from Poxl’s memoir that make him out to be the sort of dashing figure played by David Niven or Robert Taylor in the movies; and framing chapters narrated by a grown-up Eli, looking back on his boyhood and his discovery of the truth about Poxl’s life.
What keeps this story from devolving into sentimental or predictable melodrama is Mr. Torday’s instinctive understanding of Eli, his ability to convey both Eli’s childhood craving for a hero and role model, and his grown-up apprehension of the complexities of truth. Poxl remains a more elusive character. No doubt he is meant to be, as it’s hard to separate the man from the mythmaking that eventually leads to his downfall (a fall that seems apparent to the reader nearly from the novel’s start, though it comes as a terrible shock to young Eli).
In some respects, Poxl’s penchant for exaggeration may remind readers of the embellished storytelling that recently landed the NBC anchor Brian Williams in so much trouble. And “The Last Flight” often does seem informed by earlier controversies like James Frey’s admission that he’d made up details of his life in his so-called “memoir,” “A Million Little Pieces.”
In fact, “The Last Flight” provides both a touching, old-fashioned drama about war and love (along the lines, say, of the Robert Taylor-Vivien Leigh movie “Waterloo Bridge”) and a more modern framing tale that makes us rethink the impulses behind storytelling, and the toll that self-dramatization can take not only on practitioners but also on those who believe and cherish their fictions.
Poxl, we learn, is not Eli’s relative by blood, but rather an old family friend who fills the void left by the death of Eli’s grandfather and who comes to play the role of mentor in all things cultural (art, literature, music, theater). His stories of his World War II heroics with the Royal Air Force — reminiscent of some of the tall tales told by Geoffrey Wolff’s con-man father in “The Duke of Deception” — entrance Eli, who looks up to him as a Jewish war hero, who succeeded in wreaking vengeance on the Nazis who had killed his family back home in Czechoslovakia.
When Poxl’s book is published, Eli studies it carefully — this object containing the stories his uncle had once shared with him over ice cream sundaes. The photograph on the back cover shows Poxl standing with his arms crossed, in front of a large tree: “It was the kind of photograph,” Eli recalls, “you’d find on the back of a Stephen King or a John Irving novel at that time — in the days when a writer could become as famous as an actor or an athlete and ascend to the most visible ranks of American public life, could hope to meet Norman Mailer at a party, be reviewed in the Village Voice Literary Supplement. A kind of literary fame that’s hard even to fathom, let alone remember, now.”
Mr. Torday — the director of creative writing at Bryn Mawr College, an editor at The Kenyon Review and the author of a novella, “The Sensualist” — injects Poxl’s account of his life with a keen sense of verisimilitude. He has a painterly eye for detail: a townhouse, painted canary yellow, made of “chisel-cut rectangular stones,” “the Catherine wheels raised by each blockbuster bomb as it landed,” a bomb-damaged sandwich shop in London bravely sporting a sign “More Open Than Usual.” And this gift, combined with his sure sense of time and place, makes the worlds that Poxl traverses in Czechoslovakia, the Netherlands and England jump into focus. He also has Poxl recount his star-crossed romances — one with a prostitute named Françoise, the other with a nurse named Glynnis — with a depth of feeling that underscores the pain of loss he suffered during the war and his own tendency to abandon those who care for him.
It’s Mr. Torday’s ability to shift gears between sweeping historical vistas and more intimate family dramas, and between old-school theatrics and more contemporary meditations on the nature of storytelling that announces his emergence as a writer deserving of attention.

THE LAST FLIGHT OF POXL WEST
By Daniel Torday
291 pages. St. Martin’s Press. $25.99.
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