After finishing Robert L. O'Connell's Fast Eddie: A Novel in Many Voices (Morrow,$24, 0688166903), I turned to the one-volume encyclopedias and historical reference works that fill the bookshelves behind my chair to look up EdwardVernon Rickenbacker (1890-1973), the historical figure who is the novel's title character. It was an education. The books that mentioned Rickenbacker gave only a sketchy biographical outline in a few sentences. Most of them didn't have a listing for him. Even the alphabetically nearby Matthew Ridgway, a hero of World War II and Korea but surely way off the left-hand side of today's recognition meter, got more mentions. A man I had assumed was part of our cultural baggage apparently is circling 'round and 'round the luggage carousel in historical oblivion, claimed by nobody. Until O'Connell. Which is another renewed lesson to me, that a novel is not a work of nonfiction and a novelist does not have to hew to facts or history or anything except his own imagination. As it happens, I think that O'Connell's frequently funny novel has remained true to the main facts of Rickenbacker's life, which was one to fire any writer's imagination. Born into poverty in Columbus, Ohio, Rickenbacker became a famous race car driver and an aerial ace in World War I (he received the Congressional Medal of Honor). After the war he formed the Rickenbacker Car Co. and when that failed he helped start Eastern Airlines in the late 1930s. In 1941 he suffered massive injuries in a crash of one of his own airliners. On a mission for the government in World War II, the plane he was on crashed in the Pacific and he survived 23 days in a life raft apparently, by his goading, helping his raft-mates also to survive. He went on to run Eastern for 20 years. Where the author takes liberties is in the telling, which is through the use of, as the subtitle says, many voices, most of them historical figures, including General Billy Mitchell, Damon Runyon, W.
C. Fields, Richard Nixon, and dozens of others. This works better than you might expect and is far from unique. John Dos Passos (one of the voices here) used it to a limited extent 70 years ago. More recently, Beryl Bainbridge told her historical novel of the Crimean War, Master Georgie, through three voices. Though this comes at the expense of rounded development of character, it does provide a multifaceted view of things. One view of an aspect of Rickenbacker's life is given (perhaps his mother's), then another (maybe Rickenbacker's own), and then, often, a less subjective view (such as a former colleague's). Sometimes this more objective view is that of the scribe, the person putting all this down on paper, who also provides a thread of narrative to help readers keep their bearings. Where this does not work well is in the voice of God, who speaks here like an adolescent wiseacre or a cynical bully. ( If I were you I'd shut up, he declaims to the universe at one point, and hope I don't decide to reincarnate the lot of you. ) The temptation for the author to play God with God was just too much to resist. It is hard to say exactly what God's purpose is in the novel or what his attitude is toward Rickenbacker, other than taking him down a peg or two. God has his moments. Christians are particularly annoying, he says. Why should I care if they believe in me? I'm God. I have a good self-image. If they really believed in Me, they wouldn't always be exhorting each other to believe in Me. But such moments are few and far between. Out of this collection of views it is possible to detect one view of Rickenbacker, a summation of character, and it is mostly that of the scribe. Typical is this, from Rickenbacker's Detroit years: Sure he was a whore. But so was practically everybody else. He just charged more and served fewer clients. If that sounds harsh, there is this backhanded compliment: [H]e and his generation strung together success after success until they nearly ruled the world. They were pig-headed, wasteful, and cruel; but they were also self-reliant and tough to a degree that the shambling legions of the sensitive can barely imagine. So, which is worse, pig-headed corporate whore or shambling sensitive soul? God only knows, and here, at least he isn't saying.
Roger K. Miller is a freelance writer who can be reached at email@example.com.