Ernest K(ellogg) Gann V. S. Pritchett - Essay

V. S. Pritchett

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

["Fate is the Hunter"] is a documentary about the pre-war days of commercial flying, first in the United States and, after, during the war, in South America and all over the world. It is an evocation from the point of view of the men in the cockpit, the pilot and co-pilot. They are shown as technicians watching their instruments and then, suddenly, as human beings surprised by peril—all four engines give out; the aircraft is lost; it runs into violent storm; it is down to a few minutes petrol; it escapes collision by 50 feet; it is pulled down by ice and so on. These jabs of Fate are unpredictable and are opposed by the pilots' luck, their individual character, their hard apprenticeship and their technical intelligence, the virtù of the profession.

Although parts of the book are written in the attitudinising prose of posh journalism that hectors the reader into an exalted state of respect and alarm, the greater part is plain and always absorbing. Mr. Gann is not in the Saint-Exupéry class and, in one sense, is the better for that: he informs. He leads our understanding into the deep technical interest of a dangerous craft. We shall no longer be the torpid, bored passengers we used to be; we shall be more exquisitely frightened and yet, somehow, far more confident.

All Mr. Gann's characters are quiet, unoppressive heroes.

Mr. Gann's chapters are well-chosen to give the alarming or mysterious aspects of flying; they are models of suspense appearing suddenly in the ordinary course of the trade. They owe their effectiveness to the careful and interesting way he has described the commonplace: the preoccupation of the pilots with regulations, flying hours, pay seniority and behaviour, the idiosyncrasies of planes, the reputations of places…. Mr. Gann is a writer saturated in his subject; he has the skill to make every instant sharp and important and we catch the fever to know that documentary writing does not often invite.

V. S. Pritchett, "Pilots and Co-Pilots," in New Statesman (© 1961 The Statesman & Nation Publishing Co. Ltd.), Vol. LXI, No. 1565, March 10, 1961, p. 390.