The absent father is hardly a new theme in fiction. But in his debut novel, Gentlemen of Space, Ira Sher approaches the idea from a vantage point that is, literally, out of this world.
Georgie Finch is a 9-year-old boy growing up in Magnolia Court, a suburban housing project in Florida, in the mid-1970s. His dad teaches earth sciences; his mom is a glamorous but rather chilly hospice nurse. The cute blonde girl next door, Angie, babysits Georgie, and his best friend, Fauna, lives there too. In short, Magnolia Court is Georgie's whole world until the day his father, Jerry, wins an essay contest and is chosen to be the first civilian on the moon.
Sher refracts an eerie light onto this nostalgic tale of suburban America until its surface is pierced and its true components are revealed. More than one family's simple tale, Georgie's story tells of an entire nation's innocence lost, faith destroyed, dreams crushed and heroes tarnished.
Jerry Finch, a dreamy everyman, goes to the moon on the Apollo 19 with Buzz Aldrin and Neil Armstrong. (The Apollo 19 in reality was planned for the early '70s but canceled due to NASA's lack of funding.) There he disappears, and the ship returns to Earth without him. Legions of Jerry's fans, for whom he clearly represents the American Dream in its purest form (didn't everyone always want to be an astronaut?), maintain a vigil in Magnolia Court, clinging to the irrational belief that he will somehow, eventually, return. Politicians, journalists and others gravitate to the scene, scrambling to gain whatever they can even if it's only a renewal of faith from the fiasco. Meanwhile, Georgie keeps getting phone calls from his father, although of course nobody believes him; you can't phone home from the moon, after all.
The novel grows more and more hallucinatory as it moves along, changing points of view and throwing everything we think we know about space, dreams, history, Neil Armstrong, Jerry, Angie and especially about Georgie into doubt. Without revealing too much, it's fair to say the boy is an unreliable narrator of the most intriguing sort. Sure, it's "out there," but the novel, with its meticulous structuring and graceful writing tinged with sadness and humor, marks this author as a bright star indeed. Becky Ohlsen is a freelance writer in Portland, Oregon