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Sunday, December 5, 2010

Flying by Eric Kraft

It's funny I read this so soon after Tristam Shandy, because that book was clearly an influence; Flying opens with a quote from it, and even has similar diagrams tracking stories and digressions. But where Tristam Shandy was about the difficulties of creating (or just finishing) a story, Craft's book is about the unreliability of stories.

Peter Leroy is the famous "Birdboy of Babbington," who, as a teenager in the 50's, built a flying motorcycle and flew from Long Island to New Mexico and back. But now, happily married and retired, he is writing his memoirs to tell the truth -- he never actually got off the ground. The book, which is really three novellas, two previously published (apparently most of Kraft's fiction is about Peter Leroy at different stages of his life) and one new, alternates between the memoirs Peter is writing and the recreation of the trip he takes with his wife, Albertine. But although Peter wants to set the record straight, that is not quite as easy as it would seem.

What follows is a very funny story, or stories, as Peter encounters rather twisted versions of Smalltown, America. A festival celebrating marshmallows (every item on the buffet incorporates them), a newspaper devoted to prognostication, a dungeon in a castle on top of a hill on a stormy night (or maybe it was just a water tower), a diner determined to give every man, woman, and child a heart attack on a plate, a restaurant in an old mill run by a painfully hip couple, characters that step right out of 50's pulp magazines, it goes on and on. Determining "what really happened" is impossible -- there is a reason why the NYT review said "a Venn diagram . . . would show the extremely slender overlap between the set of readers who like the ineffable, high-concept fiction of, say, Jorge Luis Borges or David Foster Wallace, and the set of readers who favor fondly comic portraits of small-town life in mid-20th-century America after the fashion of Garrison Keillor or Jean Shepard."

Early in the book, Peter and his wife Albertine are cycling through Central Park when she gets into a bad bicycle accident. Later, in the ER, she asks "Did you write about the crash?" "Yes, I set it in Central Park." "A much nicer setting. Much nicer." He changes his father's involvement in the project (we never really understand what his role was) several times, to better reflect the relationship he had with him and the one he wished he had, as a way of acknowledging that he did not fully understand his father. In other parts, he acknowledges that he has made mistakes in his recounting, the results of confused or faulty memories. Sometimes he'll make things up to cover these lapses in his memory, sometimes he'll just, say, call the town he cannot remember Forgettable, Va. Sometimes he changes the facts to make himself look better, or worse, exercises in teenage grandiosity and humility. Things happen in the book that seem like obvious manipulations to make the story more dramatic, but only some of them are. He tells a story one way, then rewrites it when Albertine declares it unbelievable. At one point, he actually ends up in the middle of the crop-dusting scene from North by Northwest -- the actual event, not the making of the film scene.

Throughout it all, Peter as both a boy and a man tries to get someone, anyone, to listen to his stories, but only his devoted wife will. But that is the advantage of writing a memoir -- Peter has at last told his story, and at least one person -- me -- has read it. And what a story. This book not only tells a hell of a tale, it shows us why we tell tales.

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