Frank Cahill, a middle-aged carpenter who has built himself a small amusement park in Atlanta, has recently gone blind from a sudden attack of diabetes. When he receives a telegram informing him that his son Joel has been killed in an Air Corps training accident, Cahill takes Zack, a ferocious companion who seems more wolf than dog, and boards a bus for Peckover, North Carolina. It is January, 1943, and Cahill and the reader spend several days at the Army Air Corps training camp attempting to understand what had happened to the son who grew up with his mother, in Memphis, and whom Cahill had never seen.

Many of ALNILAM’s pages are split into two columns: the left, in dark print, representing Cahill’s perceptions, and the right in light print, representing those of the many people he meets. The novel’s dense, allusive prose forces the reader to undergo the same groping toward enlightenment as blind Cahill. Each of Joel’s instructors, fellow cadets, and female companions whom the reader encounters has a story to tell and a role in resolving the mystery of his death, and life.

Alnilam is the name of a star at the center of the Orion constellation, and it is a crucial element in the cult that has grown up around the charismatic Joel. The young pilot, who seems born to fly and has concocted a kind of aviational cabala, has attracted the fervent allegiance of cadets on several bases and the animosity of his commanding officer, Colonel Hoccleve. The climax of the novel comes when the Alnilam devotees arrange a disruptive action at their flight class’s graduation.

ALNILAM abounds in flashbacks and digressions and in rich narrative sequences, such as the one...

(The entire section is 696 words.)