(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

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.)


(Masterpieces of American Literature)

Alnilam is completely different from Deliverance. Whereas Deliverance unfolds swiftly around a tightly structured plot, Alnilam—much longer at 682 pages—rambles along, often faltering under the burden of its sometimes awkward split point of view. The main character, Frank Cahill, is an amusement park owner in Atlanta who learns that his son Joel has died in a mysterious training plane crash at the North Carolina Air Corps base where he is stationed during World War II. Joel’s body cannot be found, and Cahill, recently victimized by blindness brought on by diabetes, travels by bus to the training base with his German shepherd seeing-eye dog, Zack. He hopes to learn exactly what happened to Joel.

Cahill is received well by the camp authorities, and he meets Joel’s officers and friends. He trudges over the site of the fatal accident. He even sleeps with one of the local women well known to the airmen. He never discovers, however, exactly how Joel died. What he does discover is that Joel was the moving spirit of a mysterious cult named for the star Alnilam deep in Orion, the hunter constellation. Their goal is a transcendence of the earthly and physical through the experience of flight, an experience that to them becomes virtually mystical.

Many pages of Alnilam are printed in double columns. A column on the left in boldface print renders the thoughts and sensations of the blind Cahill, groping...

(The entire section is 572 words.)