Inspired, perhaps, by his own World War II flying experiences for the Army Air Corps, James Dickey’s novel Alnilam is set in the fictional town of Peckover adjoining a military airfield near Fayetteville, North Carolina. The central character, Frank Cahill, officially notified of the accidental flying death of his son, Joel, whom he has never seen, journeys to the airbase to meet the officers and aviation cadets.
Alnilam is not divided into chapters or major parts. All the events center around Frank Cahill, recently blind from diabetes, and his quest to find out about his son and the manner of his death. Lengthy passages of the novel are set in parallel columns reflecting darkness and light, the bold left type reflecting Cahill’s internal sensations and thoughts, and the right side the objective narrative of speech and events.
Alnilam opens with an interesting account of Cahill’s attempt to find his way out of a boardinghouse in the middle of a winter night to relieve himself. He is accompanied by Zack, his faithful, untrained dog. This hallucinatory opening is followed by flashbacks of Cahill’s life, fleshing out some biographical details and clarifying his present situation. He is the owner of Willow Plunge Amusement Park in Atlanta. Nineteen years ago, his pregnant wife, Florence, left him forever. He has never once seen or contacted his son, Joel. Cahill’s blindness, the result of the sudden onset of adult diabetes, occurred less than four months ago.
The novel’s events occur within a week in January, 1943. Cahill has just received a military telegram inviting him to the airbase where his son was training. The military cadets are graduating, and they want Cahill to attend the ceremonies. On a selfish whim, he decides to go...
(The entire section is 736 words.)