Terrestrials

Overview

In the beginning are two United States Air Force spy-plane pilots. Booth and Clegg, the elite of an elite men confident of their skills, men who know each other as well as they know themselves. Or so they think. When their spy plane plummets from the sky over Saharan Africa, the two find themselves thrust into a journey to the far poles of late-twentieth-century human experience, to places where all comfortable givens - like "friendship" and "duty" - quickly fall away. Booth and Clegg, it turns out, have not the ...
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Overview

In the beginning are two United States Air Force spy-plane pilots. Booth and Clegg, the elite of an elite men confident of their skills, men who know each other as well as they know themselves. Or so they think. When their spy plane plummets from the sky over Saharan Africa, the two find themselves thrust into a journey to the far poles of late-twentieth-century human experience, to places where all comfortable givens - like "friendship" and "duty" - quickly fall away. Booth and Clegg, it turns out, have not the slightest idea who they are, much less who the other is, but as we watch them struggle with their own contingency with disorienting shifts in the pressurization of time and space, we learn an astonishing amount about who we are, as Americans, as terrestrials. Along the way we are brought by one of our greatest living writers into the embrace of his most magnificent and tender dream so far, a majestic account of the trials and ceaselessly surprising consolations of two extraordinary, ordinary men.
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Editorial Reviews

San Francisco Chronicle
A challenging, meditative novel written by a stylist par excellence.
Boston Globe
The novel edges toward sublimity...bold and expansive.
Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
West's latest novel (after The Tent of the Orange Mist) begins with a conceit: the narrator is identified as One Eighth Humbly, an alien from outer space. The densely textured story he tells concerns Booth and Clegg, two pilots who are forced to bail out of their high-speed, top-secret reconnaissance plane when it's shot down over Ethiopia. Booth lands in a salt desert while Clegg hangs from his parachute on the face of a tall cliff. After both are rescued a few days later, each is questioned with truth serums and sent to the Pentagon, where they remain as virtual prisoners. The reason for their treatment soon becomes clear: unknown to Clegg, Booth has been acting as a double agent for (or against) the Russians. The pilots escape and find their way to the Finger Lakes region of New York, where they begin their next career as the owner-operators of a small airline. Their real occupation, however, is making sense of their Air Force mission and their larger fate. Booth and Clegg reflect on the Battle of Britain, black-box conversations from a number of airplane crashes, literature, language and culture, always returning to their encyclopedic knowledge of the history of aviation as a universal metaphor and source of understanding. Casual readers may lose patience with the sheer density of the alien narrator's exposition and carefully calculated flubs and formalities. The persistent, however, will savor the way West, an accomplished stylist, explores the dilemma of Booth and Clegg: knowledgeable yet unknowing, they are two high-tech pilots in Plato's Cave puzzling out the mystery of their terrestrial lives. (Sept.)
Kirkus Reviews
As usual, West (Sporting With Amaryllis, 1996, etc.) offers erudite commentary and provocative insights into the human predicament, this time in a tale told by an extraterrestrial about two American pilots bound by friendship and history.

West's novice novelist, One Eighth Humbly—who writes the novel one reads here—is a kind of extraterrestrial Gulliver who describes a world quite unlike his own, and in doing so implicitly tries to understand life on his own star as well as on Earth. Like earthlings, he looks for, but doesn't find, proof of an almighty being's existence amid the enormous amount of information he and fellow aliens have assembled. But the story he tells of Clegg and Booth, American military pilots, does afford him a chance to observe humans—intelligent beings for the most part—as they try to understand themselves and the situations that confront them. The novelist doesn't quite get how everything works on earth—the notion of seasons confuses him, his pilots are preternaturally literary—but he gets better as the story picks up momentum. As they fly their high altitude spy-plane Cyrano on its daily sweep above the earth, Clegg and his superior officer, Booth, develop a symbiotic relationship based on flying and on Clegg's fascination with what makes Booth tick. When Cyrano is attacked over Africa, the two men parachute into the Ethiopian desert, where Clegg is caught on a rocky ledge and Booth falls in with a band of cruel salt-miners. As challenging as these experiences are, they're not as difficult as life after their rescue. Finding their debriefings increasingly incomprehensible, even threatening, the two escape, adopt new identities, and go into business as charter pilots. But freedom has its own challenges. Haunted by their heroic pasts, they discover, tragically, that they can't adjust to the prosaic realities of their lives.

A splendid assembly of ideas, language, and allusions, though sometimes the sheer intellectual exuberance overwhelms the story, however conceptually brilliant.

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780879518912
  • Publisher: Overlook Press, The
  • Publication date: 1/1/1999
  • Pages: 380
  • Product dimensions: 5.46 (w) x 7.98 (h) x 1.08 (d)

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