(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 8)

James Dickey offers a quotation from Lucretius as the epigraph to this long and rewarding novel, alerting his readers that Alnilam will take them into “the great sea of air” in much the same way as Herman Melville explored the symbolic and literal meanings of the sea in his great classic, Moby Dick (1851). For Alnilam is, indeed, concerned with the air, both as the surrounding medium in which Frank Cahill gropes and finds his tentative way, and also as the mysterious element that must be understood and conquered by class after class of young army air corps recruits as they make their first solo flight over the hills of Peckover, North Carolina.

Alnilam is really three novels in one. On the first level, it can be read as a good war novel, another well-told yarn about the international enterprise known as World War II. Dickey comes by his lore honestly, since he served in the air corps during World War II and is intimately familiar with the technical aspects of navigation, bombing, and stunt flying. On the second level, Alnilam can be read as a novel of existential discovery in which a middle-aged man is suddenly and unexpectedly ravaged by a severe case of diabetes. This tragic disease blinds him and catapults him into an entirely new relationship with his environment, which is transformed into “a whole new country of feels.” Finally, on the third level, Alnilam is a sort of occult and mystical tale in which Joel Cahill, the victim of the air crash, becomes a kind of airborne guru, a poet and litanist of flying who exerts a powerful and eerie influence over his many followers. In fact, the term Alnilam serves Dickey in numerous ways: It functions as the title of the book, the name of the middle star in the constellation Orion, and (most important) the name of the bizarre cult of the air which Joel Cahill had secretly organized prior to his violent death.

The plot of Alnilam can be neatly and briefly summarized, although its significance is far more subtle. Frank Cahill, a strong, self-taught carpenter who has built and operates an amusement park in Atlanta, is suddenly hit by two awesome blows: first, the onset of diabetes, which causes his eyesight to degenerate quickly into total blindness and which also requires daily injections of insulin, and, second, the shocking news of his son’s death in the mountains of North Carolina. Accompanied only by Zack, the wolflike dog he has trained as his guide and companion, Cahill boards the bus for North Carolina, and for the next four days he unravels the mystery of Alnilam.

Much of the book, then, is focused on the typical activities of a rural air base in World War II. Dickey brilliantly evokes the military world of raw recruits, starched uniforms, identical barracks, institutional food, and standardized clothing and equipment (sheepskin-lined flying jackets, the E6B navigational tool, and Ray Ban sunglasses). It is a world of colonels, cadets, and classes—endless classes on fuel consumption, internal combustion engines, and the physics of flying. There is much discussion of the Stearman airplane, a slow biplane used as the trainer for the new cadets. They must master figure eights and rolls, but only the truly gifted (Joel Cahill, for example) can perform such difficult maneuvers as inside and outside loops and a special trick known as “the falling leaf.”

Not everyone at the Peckover Air Base is a green recruit or a bureaucratic pencil-pusher. A few genuine heroes serve as models and mentors, including Captain Whitehall, the navigator, who tells an extraordinary tale of getting lost near New Guinea while leading a bombing run against the Japanese. In the bad weather that followed the attack, Whitehall had to guide all the planes back to Australia against almost impossible odds. His ultimate success is a triumph of personal heroism and sheer luck—a miraculous break in the weather allowed him to make a crucial triangular fix on the stars. Captain Faulstick, the bombardier, recounts an equally harrowing tale of leading a bombing run over the skies of Germany, a trip that leaves the turret gunner in pieces, a grisly fact that Faulstick discovers when he tries to rescue the man. These narratives represent some of the finest writing in Alnilam; the stories are told in a vivid, breathless prose that ranks with the best war fiction of recent decades.

Faulstick and Whitehall are genuine heroes, and for that precise reason they stand out amid the sea of khaki automatons who populate Peckover, notably the pompous and inefficient base commander, Colonel Hoccleve, and the martinet of the base, Lieutenant Foy. Most of the base personnel, however, perform their jobs in predictable, if undistinguished, ways: Major Iannone, who serves as the camp physician, and McClintock McCaig (known as “Double Mac”), the civilian flight...

(The entire section is 2004 words.)