Pieter Brueghel's Landscape with Fall of Icarus famously depicts the mythical crash of Daedalus' son as a non-event. You remember the tale: Icarus' father, Daedalus, the tricky nerd who invented the labyrinth for King Minos, fashioned wings of wax and feathers in order to escape exile in Crete. Flighty Icarus climbed too close to the sun, melting his waxen pinions and plunging to his death. In Brueghel's version, indolent shepherds and toiling ploughmen fail to notice as Icarus splashes down indecorously in a busy sea lane.
According to Brueghel, our dreams and desperations are so much wax and feathers. But the ancients were kinder to Icarus; they called the stretch of water in which he was lost the Icarian sea in his memory. The Greeks also had a more hard-boiled version of the myth, in which Pasiphaë lends the father-and-son duo a boat to effect a more practical escape. In that telling, Daedalus invents sails to outpace Minos' pursuing galleys: instead of a miraculous, hubris-fueled flight, we get the shipping business. These mythical discrepancies prompt a question: what if both versions have their roots in reality? What if Daedalus merely hinted at flight, spreading the rumor of a killer app in order to cover his maritime tracks? Perhaps Icarus, that dolt, merely fell overboard en route -- a possible interpretation of the Brueghel painting, which depicts the lad tumbling into the drink beside a galley under full sail. It's the same the kind of doublecross that Eric Kraft's haplessly hubristic protagonist, Peter Leroy, perpetrates on the loving residents of his hometown. In Flying, young Peter rolls, stumbles, lies, and -- briefly, sweetly, accidentally -- flies his way through his own mythology, a home-brewed, do-it-yourself contraption of delusions, Potemkin tourist traps, and faulty memory.
For Peter, it all begins with a lie -- a real ingrown toenail of a lie, a richly rotted, impacted cuspid of confabulation, an ouroboros of faulty oratory. Having convinced his parents that he has won a scholarship to a science camp in far-off Corosso, New Mexico, young Peter decides to build a flying motorcycle to travel from his hometown of Babbington, on Long Island, to the desert faraway. Following instructions he finds in the pages of Impractical Craftsman magazine, Peter builds the unlikely thing out of scavenged parts, dubs it Spirit of Babbington, travels there and back again upon it, and is crowned with laurels by the proud Babbingtonians, among whom his feats of engineering and aeronautical brio ensure his immortality. They may not rechristen Long Island Sound, but they do try to turn his Daedalan escapade into tourist bait.
When an adult Peter discovers the invention undertaken in his name, he begins looking for a way to undo the knot he's tied in history without offending too many old friends. With us, his trusted readers, Peter is good enough to set the record straight early; by page 26, he lets us in on the game: "I flew part of the way," he asserts. "I also taxied part of the way, before taking off and landing. I would say now...that I flew a total of about 180 to 200 feet on the way out to New Mexico. My longest sustained period of flight might have covered six feet." While the truth outs early, its implications take a leisurely trilogy to unfold. Flying gathers three books: Taking Off and On the Wing, and Flying Home. That it takes nearly one and a half of those books to reach the account of Spirit's record flight helps to measure the labyrinthine enjambments of Peter Leroy's story. For as Peter peers back into his fickle, fungible memory, he finds events aren't ordered as well as he might like. With his wife and soul mate, the wise Albertine, Peter Leroy sets out on a new journey to separate truth from falsehood -- only to find that they're opposite ends of the same beast forever swallowing its own tail.
If you were to pick up a hitchhiking Jorge Luis Borges and Robert Pirsig, or to listen as Thomas Pynchon recited Ulysses from memory over longnecks on J. D. Salinger's tab, you might catch the flavor of Eric Kraft's work. Peter's own voice is deadpan and faux-naive, and yet it's woven with strands teased from disparate and richly plaited sheets of modern culture. With Kraft, the jaunty, decadent fables of Alfred Jarry turn into practical engineering advice, while the nerdy ambitions of American do-it-yourself magazines begin to seem like a species of avant-garde art out of some Dadaism for Dummies. His chief tools, however, are borrowed not only from the pages of Popular Mechanics but from Proust and Balzac; Baudelaire and Faustroll take turns with advertisements for Hohner Harmonicas and the Elementary Differential Equations.
Peter Leroy's lost time is sought out amid a Kraft-crafted canon of short books like The Fox and the Clam and Herb 'n' Lorna -- books that plumb the lives of Leroy's friends, pets, and collateral relations. Kraft himself calls his protagonist's stories "an alternative version of his life story" -- a fictional character's autobiographical fantasies, a funhouse of broken mirrors. Conceived as a trilogy, Flying is the Scriptural underpinning to this vast tapestries of acts, deeds, and things, a canonical, post-hoc justification to frame and enclose a vast and fragmentary corpus. Do they draw those disparate books together into a whole? No -- but then, neither is Scripture self-consistent. Leave consistency to the hobgoblins. Contradiction is dialogic, and Eric Kraft's books make a crowded shelf of rich and entertaining crosstalk.
As we follow the older-but-no-wiser Peter's quest to undo his legacy, we learn of the many dangers and reversals his young self encountered on the way west. Some are hallucinatory, others are terribly real; but all are unequivocally terrestrial encounters. Spirit may be a marvel of teenage engineering and a wise and watchful muse in her own right, but a flier she is not; astride her, Peter taxis through the long days of his journey, conjuring hilltop castles and lascivious waitresses out of the beating sunlight. His one fragmentary moment of true aviation takes place as he and Spirit enter New Mexico, the Land of Enchantment. Cresting a rise, the rushing air imparts lift toSpirit's wings. Peter descends the hill "in a series of graceful flutters" to be greeted by a band of believers in a rose-strewn tent, who take him to be a UFO-mounted alien arrived to administer their salvation. As Peter fibs his way into the cult's good graces, we come to understand that his stories aren't remotely "truthy"; they're mythopoetic, always emerging out of some extraordinary occurrence to answer the needs of those who receive them.
Though his picaresque peregrinations offer many a scrape, Peter emerges strangely unscathed, unprepared for a final reckoning with truth before the assembled Babbington masses. He richly deserves the reversals which, up till now, he fantastically avoided. Even Albertine, despite her wisdom and more than occasional chagrin, seems strangely accepting and unruffled in the end by the unraveling of Peter's clews. And yet his preternatural good fortune is tempered somewhat by final knowledge that we are all Icarus, dreaming of flight while stuck on deck fiddling with the rigging. So Peter doesn't tell the UFO watchers that he was felled when sunspots affected his "magnetomic drive" merely to deceive -- he's answering their prayers, confirming and enlarging their own mythology. And ultimately, no one needs Peter's tall tales more than the residents of Babbington. Hubris may offend the gods, but we need it -- and the accidental mythology it spawns -- if not in ourselves, then in our neighbors, sons, and daughters. --Matthew Battles
Matthew Battles is the author of Library: An Unquiet History. He has written about language, technology, and history for such publications as The American Scholar, The Boston Sunday Globe, and Harper's.
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I'd often dreamed of going West to see the country, always vaguely planning and never taking off.
--Jack Kerouac, On the Road
Lets and Hindrances, Views and Prospects
When a man sits down to write a history,--tho' it be but the history of Jack Hickathrift or Tom Thumb, he knows no more than his heels what lets and confounded hindrances he is to meet with in his way,--or what a dance he may be led, by one excursion or another, before all is over ... . For, if he is a man of the least spirit, he will have fifty deviations from a straight line to make with this or that party as he goes along, which he can no ways avoid. He will have views and prospects to himself perpetually soliciting his eye, which he can no more help standing still to look at than he can fly ... .
--Laurence Sterne,Tristram Shandy
WHEN I WAS fifteen, I made a solo flight from Babbington, New York, on the South Shore of Long Island, to Corosso, New Mexico, in the foothills of the San Mateo Mountains, on the banks of the Rio Grande, in a single-seat airplane that I had built in the family garage. Because I was still a boy, a teenager, the feat was breathlessly recounted in the Babbington newspaper, the Reporter, and in the regional press as well. There were errors in those reports, and the errors have been repeated in anniversary recaps at intervals since then. The errors have now been so fully sanctioned by repetition that they have the ring of truth. From time to time my day is interrupted by phone calls from eager interviewers who want me to tell the story again. Without exception, they want me to retell the story as it has already been reported. I have tried, during some of those telephone interviews, to correct a few errors of fact and interpretation, but my efforts have been dismissed with the condescending politeness that we employ with those whom we regard as having had their wits enfeebled by time.
Because I have consistently failed to set the record straight by phone, I have for some time intended to prepare a full and accurate written account that would do the job without my having to pause in the telling to endure the protests of reporters who accuse me of being "modest" when I am only trying to be, at long last, honest. When I finallybegan writing that account--at some point during the writing of the first part of it, which chronicles my preparations for the trip--I stepped back from it, paused, and read what I had written. I found, to my surprise, that it was full and accurate, and that I had set a standard of completeness and accuracy that I was going to have to strive to maintain in the parts of the tale that were still to be written.
In the spirit of completeness and accuracy, I will confess to you here that the account that I have found myself writing is not quite the account that I had intended to provide. I'll be frank: I had not intended to set the record quite so straight as I have done. I had intended to allow some of the old errors to stand--the ones that conveyed an impression of me as more capable and my trip as more successful than either actually was--and I had intended to perpetuate the myth of myself as a daring flyboy, the "Birdboy of Babbington," the epitome of American ingenuity and pluck, teen division. My intentions altered after I revisited Babbington, the start and finish of that famous flight.
As you will soon see, I revisited the town because I received a note from a former schoolmate urging me to see what had become of the place during my absence.
Following that visit, upon my return to Manhattan, I sat down to write, full of good intentions, determined, focused, a man with a mission. Almost at once I began to meet with lets and confounded hindrances, difficulties and disappointments, and even a personal disaster--an injury to my beloved Albertine--that delayed my work, stretching it out over a far longer time than I had intended to give it. This unexpected extension of the time given to thinking about what I wanted to say led me to compose a more complete account than I had intended. For me, you see, the lets and hindrances abetted my love for a full account, because they gave me time, and, given time, I tend to wander, and when I wander the byways of memory, surprising views and prospects solicit my eye. I pause. I look. I enjoy the view. I explore the prospects. I add the view or prospect to my account. I can't help myself. I am by nature digressive, within limits.
My friend Mark Dorset, an unaffiliated academic who specializes in human motivation, has written at some length on digression, and some of what he has said applies to me:
Digression is antithetical to, but dependent on, the intention toprogress along the straight and narrow way. In order to digress, one must first be progressing. One cannot be sidetracked unless one is first on track. One cannot stray unless one is first on the right path. One cannot turn aside unless one is first moving straight ahead. Proust famously pointed out that we cannot remember what has not occurred; he might just as well have pointed out that we cannot digress from a route that we had not intended to take.
If one's honest answer to the question "Where are you trying to go?" is "I don't know," then one cannot digress.
To digress, then, you must begin by traveling a route that will get you where you intend to go. You must have a goal and a plan for achieving it in order to depart from it. You cannot digress from the right path unless you are already on it.
The easiest path to digress from is the straight and narrow, the straight and strait, rather than the broad way that rambles on its own. The slightest deviation from the straight and narrow is a digression, but the broad way allows a lot of wandering within it, so that one may amble a meandering course and still be within its limits, not really digressing at all.
The digressive thinker is by nature an explorer rather than a point-A-to-point-B traveler. What is the opposite of a digressive thinker? Someone like Phileas Fogg as Jules Verne portrayed him in Around the World in Eighty Days:
He gave the idea of being perfectly well-balanced, as exactly regulated as a Leroy chronometer ... .
He was so exact that he was never in a hurry, was always ready, and was economical alike of his steps and his motions. He never took one step too many, and always went to his destination by the shortest cut; he made no superfluous gestures, and was never seen to be moved or agitated. He was the most deliberate person in the world, yet always reached his destination at the exact moment.
He lived alone, and, so to speak, outside of every social relation; and as he knew that in this world account must be taken of friction, and that friction retards, he never rubbed against anybody.
That is certainly not me. I am no Phileas Fogg. I rub against everybody--and against every memory--and against everybody in every memory. The friction retards my progress but warms my heart.
There is attached to digression a strong suggestion of weakness of character in the digresser. The digresser is digressive, inclined to stray from the right path, the point, the main subject, the intended direction, and the goal, and this tendency to stray is considered by many to be a fault, which characterization makes digression nearly equal to transgression. Progression, on the other hand, is generally regarded as a virtue. The progresser, if you will allow me the term, is progressive (not in the political sense, usually, but in the forward-marching sense), never straying from the path or plan, always moving toward an established goal step by step. To go off course by choice, or to be lured from the right path by a seductive roadside attraction, is regarded as a fault, but to be forced off course is not. The sailor blown off course by mighty Aeolus isguiltless, a victim, but the sailor drawn off course by the Sirens' song is a fool who ought to have stopped his ears with wax and stayed the course.
I was, as I hope you will agree after reading the pages that follow, blown off course by the accident of Albertine's injury as much as I was lured off course by the siren call of unsolicited recollection. The first was no fault of mine, an accident. The second I count a virtue, since it served the cause of completeness and accuracy. As a result, however, the short book that I had intended to write about my exploit has become a long book in three parts: Taking Off (in which I make my plans and depart), On the Wing (in which I meander from Babbington to New Mexico), and Flying Home (in which I return to Babbington, somewhat older and, perhaps, somewhat the wiser).
Allow me a couple of thank-yous and a couple of apologies, and then we can begin the show.
To the members of the Faustroll Institute: Thank you for preserving my secret throughout my stay at the Summer Institute in Mathematics, Physics, and Weaponry. Among the things that I should have learned at SIMPaW is the fact that fame, celebrity, and notoriety are equally dangerous. If I had learned the lesson well enough I would have applied it when I arrived back home in Babbington; I would have refused a fame that I didn't deserve, and I never would have had to confess that my storied flight was something less than I allowed everyone to believe. Confronting my failure to learn that lesson, I am astonished that I didn't learn it, because so many of my experiences at SIMPaW gave me opportunities to learn it. Among them was my status as an interloper who had to make himself as close to invisible as he could manage. However, the experience that should have taught the lesson most powerfully was the fame achieved by Nick's picture of the girl in the window--and the danger that its fame unleashed--as you will see. Reflecting on the danger of fame and the fragility of a secret has made me appreciate your loyalty. How difficult it must have been for you to keepmy secret, and how unselfish you were in keeping it. You must have been tempted many times to barter the secret for some advantage, yet none of you betrayed me, not even the one of you whom I have represented as calling himself Count Übermensch.
To Matthew Barber: Thank you for the many, many pages of "corrections" that you sent me, unsolicited, after I yielded to your repeated requests that I allow you to read the manuscript before publication. You will find that I have made some of the changes you suggested, but I'm sure you will think that I haven't made nearly so many as I should have. Your memory of that summer when we were in New Mexico differs from mine on so many points, Matthew, that if I had made all the changes you wanted the story would have become much less mine and much more yours. We don't even agree on the name of the organization that sponsored the Summer Institute; you remember it as the National Science Foundation, I as the Preparedness Foundation. You also insist that the New Mexico Institute of Mining, Technology, and Pharmacy was simply the New Mexico Institute of Mining and Technology. This book tells my story, and in order to be able to say that it is mine, even in its errors, I have had to ignore most of your "corrections."
To Spirit of Babbington: Thank you for carrying me all those miles, and thank you for being my traveling companion as well as my conveyance. I don't know what has become of you, but I hope you don't think that I abandoned you. What happened really wasn't my fault. After we got home and I parked you in the family garage, your "hangar," I supposed that you and I would be seeing each other often. I thought that I would be piloting you on short jaunts here and there in the vicinity of Babbington, making together the little local trips that the editors of Impractical Craftsman had expected an aerocycle to make. At some point, though, I began to realize that if we made those jaunts the people of Babbington would eventually notice that you and I never left the ground. So I left you in the garage. Time passed. I graduated from Babbington High and went off to college, and my mother bought a second-hand car. For a while, she parked her car in the driveway infront of the garage bay where you were stored, and you still had your "hangar" to yourself, but when winter approached my mother reasonably decided that her car ought to have the shelter of the garage. She persuaded my father to move you from the garage to a place behind the garage, where he covered you with a tarpaulin. There you sat in all weathers, until time had taken its toll enough to make it unlikely that you would ever again go anywhere under your own power. My mother asked me to get rid of you. My friend Raskol and I loaded you onto the Lodkochnikov family pickup and carted you to Majestic Salvage and Wrecking. I like to think that the doctrine of perpetual utility to which Majestic's customers subscribed didn't fail you, and that pieces of you found their way into many useful and intriguing gadgets.
To Albertine: I know that I have been insufferable at times during my work on this book, and yet you have suffered me, as you always have, my beautiful dark-haired long-suffering wife. Thank you. The next book will be easier, I promise. It will involve no soul-searching, no confessions, and no hand-wringing. It will be the story of our meeting, that day when our paths intersected.
Peter Leroy New York City February 29, 2008
FLYING. Copyright © 2006, 2007, 2009 by Eric Kraft. All rights reserved. For information, address Picador, 175 Fifth Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10010.