A NEW YORK TIMES BOOK REVIEW EDITORS' CHOICE
"An utterly accomplished novel."-The New York Times Book Review
Poxl West fled the Nazis' onslaught in Czechoslovakia. He escaped their clutches again in Holland. He pulled Londoners from the Blitz's rubble. He wooed intoxicating, unconventional beauties. He rained fire on Germany from his RAF bomber.
Poxl West is the epitome of manhood and something of an idol to his teenage nephew, Eli Goldstein, who reveres him as a brave, singular, Jewish war hero. Poxl fills Eli's head with electric accounts of his derring-do, adventures and romances, as he collects the best episodes from his storied life into a memoir.
He publishes that memoir, Skylock, to great acclaim, and its success takes him on the road, and out of Eli's life. With his uncle gone, Eli throws himself into reading his opus and becomes fixated on all things Poxl.
But as he delves deeper into Poxl's history, Eli begins to see that the life of the fearless superman he's adored has been much darker than he let on, and filled with unimaginable loss from which he may have not recovered. As the truth about Poxl emerges, it forces Eli to face irreconcilable facts about the war he's romanticized and the vision of the man he's held so dear.
Daniel Torday's debut novel, The Last Flight of Poxl West, beautifully weaves together the two unforgettable voices of Eli Goldstein and Poxl West, exploring what it really means to be a hero, and to be a family, in the long shadow of war.
|Publisher:||St. Martin's Press|
|Product dimensions:||6.40(w) x 9.30(h) x 4.10(d)|
About the Author
DANIELTORDAY is theDirector of Creative Writingat Bryn Mawr College. An author and formereditor at Esquire magazine, Torday currently serves as an editor at The Kenyon Review. His short stories and essays have appeared in Esquire, Glimmer Train, Harper Perennial’s Fifty-Two Stories, Harvard Review, The New York Times and The Kenyon Review. Torday’s novella, The Sensualist, won the 2012 National Jewish Book Award for debut fiction.
Read an Excerpt
The Last Flight of Poxl West
By Daniel Torday
St. Martin's PressCopyright © 2015 Daniel Torday
All rights reserved.
I grew up in Leitmeritz, a small Czechoslovak city forty miles north of Prague. My father owned a large leather factory called Brüder Weisberg. It was a business he ran for his family, out of filial duty and love, and if this story is to be about something, it is love, not war. And if we are to understand romantic love, we must first understand the languid, sedentary love of family.
My father was among the most well-to-do Jews in Czechoslovakia. We lived in a large house on a hill above the streets of Leitmeritz. Its long stone façades overlooked the city all the way down to the Elbe, over the tufted green hills where I played as a child and endured the bullying of instructors at a strict gymnasium. When I was young I worked at my father's factory. I learned the trade, and on holiday accompanied him to the aerodromes, where the fortune he'd accrued allowed him the luxury of flying private aeroplanes. One day, I was to take over the factory.
Every Sunday, while my father flew his planes, my mother took me into Prague to see her mother, my grandmother. We arrived at the main train station and she walked me through Wenceslas Var, across the Charles Bridge and up to the castle mount to buy some smazeny syr before crossing the city to my grandmother's town house. Black bulbs at the top of the cathedral stood out, imposing against the marbled sky. Walking up the cobblestone streets we passed cafés and bars where men stared at my mother's beauty as we passed. From the top of the mount we witnessed the drone of the Vltava pushing in its absolute grayness, bisecting Prague like some great creature finding it easier to keep watch over a city divided.
On one particular visit when I was thirteen, the city was overwhelmed by a gray, damp chill. It was late October and cold enough to erase most odor from the air. Only the pungent smells of meat held the power to waft by on our walk to my grandmother's immense town house in the Zizkov district. Cobblestones made a trail from the river, and beneath my feet I saw 2 ... 4 ... 16 ... 132 ... 17, 424 and on into infinity millions of cobblestones smudged to a variegated mix. The sky throbbed with fast-passing clouds. I walked with my arm in my mother's until she stopped. I looked up and saw pasted to a stone wall posters drawn by the Art Nouveau painter Alphonse Mucha.
My mother stood staring.
She was an amateur painter, a habit my father supported with a complicated reluctance I could not understand. On our trips to Prague she would always divert us when my father was absent, eager to see what art she could. While she stopped, two men paused alongside us to look at these posters, as well. Green vines enwrapped the bodies and breasts of stark naked women, in their hands bunches of grapes. One of the men next to us said to the other in a shallow, informal Czech:
"Wouldn't you like to have one just like her?"
"Flat up against a wall like that," the other replied.
They both laughed and looked at my mother, expecting to have offended her.
She smiled at them.
She was not embarrassed by the nude women before us. The men's lecherous leers and ugly comments did not faze her.
They looked at me, and my skin prickled.
They walked away.
I watched a change pass over my mother's face: The skin about her eyes drew back and I saw there a kind of giddiness my father at all times looked upon with impertinent disdain.
We walked to my grandmother's. She lived at 30 Borivojova, in a town house painted canary yellow. The components of its face were those chisel-cut rectangular stones one might find all across the city. On the front steps leading to the door sat a pair of angry lions. Inside the entranceway the air was close. Grandmother Gertrude, whom we called "Traute," held my head to her bosom. She kissed me on my cheek and rubbed the invisible stubble over her upper lip against my nose. I longed to get away and departed for the lav, and when I reached it, I tended to myself. In the cobblestones that rose out of my memory came Mucha's women—only overlaid by that scrim of stones, they grew even more angular. This new image seared itself across the backs of my eyelids. I felt the warmth of their painted bodies come to life under my skin.
While I was cleaning up, I heard footsteps.
They veered off into a room nearby. As I moved toward the sitting room where I'd left my mother and grandmother, I noticed the door to a little-used room off the main dining room was open. Inside, I found my mother standing before half a dozen paintings propped along the far wall. A burlap tarpaulin that must have been used to cover them was strewn across the floor. The angular girl in the painting before my mother sat with her legs spread, her hands below her small breasts and a mossy tuft just covering her exposed pink sex.
The two paintings next to it contained more of the same.
My mother took note of my presence. She blanched. Her shoulders drew back. A look crossed her face.
"I suppose I'm glad to see you like them," my mother said. "They're the work of a great painter, an Austrian called Schiele."
I looked away from the first painting and to one of an emaciated, naked older woman who appeared to be writhing in pain. My mother pushed it off to the side to reveal a portrait of a similarly angular woman with her legs spread as if to form a wishbone, between them heavy brushstrokes of dark gnarly brown. My mother explained that she had posed for Schiele when she was young, during summers she spent in Neulenbach, outside Vienna. There she would go to his atelier to see him with his woman, Wallie. She took my mother to buy beautiful hats until Schiele was sent to prison.
But I could not listen to her words—for on the face of the second Schiele girl, I saw something fantastic, something I hadn't noticed in the midst of my preoccupation with the fact that certain deep brushstrokes had been used to create the deep pink roundness of the areolae on that girl.
The face in that second painting was very young. But it was clearly my mother's.
If that realization wasn't enough, these paintings were the exact images overlaid by cobblestones that I'd seen when I'd closed my eyes in the bathroom minutes earlier.
I blinked hard.
It was as if I had crafted Schiele's style in my mind just minutes before. While I marveled at this coincidence, my mother said that before her marriage to my father was arranged she had sat for "her Egon" when Wallie was away. She had been the subject of a number of his paintings. Grandmother Traute had tracked down the others some time later, wishing them to be kept private.
"So what do you think, Poxl?" she said.
Again that look crossed her face.
"Let the boy to his tea," Grandmother Traute said. She had arrived in the doorway—when I couldn't say. "He hasn't had a thing to eat."
My grandmother sent me off to my tea. Voices rose from the other room and then cut out altogether. Something passed between my mother and grandmother. They returned to the drawing room. We ate. Mother sent me off for our coats and I heard corrugated words pass between them yet again. Soon we left without my learning what had transpired.
* * *
Then we were going home to Leitmeritz. My father planned to stay on another night in Prague to steal skyward one more day in his new plane. It struck me only later just how often one or the other of my parents was in Prague alone, each taking trips south almost weekly. Though in the years to follow I would learn from my father how to handle those small propeller planes that prepared me for the Tiger Moths I would later train on, my mother and I now rode the train home alone.
"Now that I know what you thought of the Schieles," she said, "tell me. Would you want to try your hand at painting one day?"
I'd only ever shown interest in books, and in my father's leather. The latter was the only viable option for me. The former could survive in mind only as a potential avocation.
"I'll take over Brüder Weisberg one day," I said.
"Well, yes, but you could paint on the side."
"If I was going to do anything," I said, "I'd write, or at the least study books, I suppose."
Her eyes grew gray. I did not know a thing about painting, but I knew my mother well enough to see I'd disappointed her.
I tried to say I could show her some of my writing if she wanted. But her eyes only darkened. She was staring out at the fallow fields alongside our window. Stands of sunflowers grew diffuse in the thickening evening light.
"Your grandmother felt very strongly against my having posed for Schiele when I was a girl," my mother said. She continued to stare out the window as she spoke. "I was just the age when a woman is supposed to have her marriage arranged. My parents decided your father was the man for me. His family still lived in Prague then. They were a good family. This was before the riots, just before you were born, before we moved to Leitmeritz for good. But that summer I lived in Neulenbach and Egon—" She stopped for a second. Not looking at me, she started up again. "The painter Schiele, whose work I've introduced you to, showed me how to paint. He suffered for his art. He was jailed after everyone in town complained he was corrupting their—that he should not be painting the portraits as he was painting them. It was only after his death that Vater would even let us keep his paintings in our house. Then Grandmother Traute became obsessed with tracking them all down, owning them."
Again she stopped and looked out the window.
We both stopped talking. My mother went to sleep. She was a small woman with the curly rust-red hair a minority of Ashkenazi Jews are blessed with. A pair of earrings dangled from her lobes, each with a piece of amber the size of a child's shooting marble. I put my head against her clavicle as I always had when I was a child. In her half-sleep, she pulled me to her, then took the amber from her ears. She clacked them against each other in her left hand. Only when the knocking of amber quieted did I know she'd passed fully into sleep.
I put my finger to her ear as I had when I was a child, as I would never stop longing to do. She lay against the door, stilled, sedentary, a woman frozen, having been captured in paint and only half-released back to the world moving past her. Her earlobe grown soft, ceding to the amber's pull, drooping, awaiting the next trip to Prague.CHAPTER 2
My name has appeared as pilot at the top of more flight manifests than I could possibly count. But you will not find a written record of the most memorable time I rose skyward. It was little more than a year after that trip to Prague with my mother. After many years left standing in a field at the aero club my father belonged to, watching him fly off and waiting for minutes, hours, until his plane appeared again in the sky—he a distant cloud obscuring the sun as I waited below—when I turned fifteen we drove down together to fly in his new Bene-Mraz Be-50 monoplane. Business must have been going well, a real fortune accruing, for this was the first plane he owned outright. For weeks prior, my father had quizzed me on flight safety, and I had complied. And now here we were.
There was an overcast sky that early-spring morning. We'd left Leitmeritz before the sun rose above Radobyl and spoken little in the morning haze coming down, and we were alone at the aero club when we arrived. My father liked very much to teach me about the leather business, but there was a newfound energy in him that morning—one I'd observed many times before and now could finally share for the first time. In the small hangar I was overcome by the smell of petrol filling the air. As my father went about his work, prepping the parts of the wooden wings of his new plane, we talked with a freedom I rarely experienced with him. His hands were busy, and when your hands are busy, it liberates your voice.
"Do you like the books you're studying at the gymnasium, Leopold?" he said. Only my father called me by my full name. Everyone else just called me Poxl. "Your mother tells me you long to study books. Perhaps you'll be a writer."
"I didn't tell her that," I said. "I want to take over the business. But I told her that if I were not to take over the business, I'd be more interested in books than I would in painting."
His hands stopped moving along the wood of the ailerons he'd been working on. I watched him make twin fists, knuckles pink against white skin, and then release them.
Then he began again at his work.
"Yes, your mother and painting," he said. "Very hard to get her off that topic once she's begun."
I agreed with him and though I thought of mentioning the Schiele paintings, asking him about my mother's life before I was born, before they met, I quickly thought better. I recognize now that of course my father knew more about my mother and her business than I possibly could have gleaned, but I was her son and a teenager, so what really could he have told me? Here we were together. It was precious time, this time alone with my father, and I had none of the petulance of a teenager that morning. I had a goal and that goal was to get into my father's new monoplane and see our world from above.
And so we flew.
My father sat in the cockpit and I sat in the passenger berth behind him, both of which were open, and he called out to ask me if I was ready, and when I said I was, we began taxiing. As the nose of the plane began to lift, I could feel the middle of my stomach dip toward the balls of my feet, and then the ground was lifting away from us. The field drew in at its edges below us and the Be-50 made a mighty racket, a whirring I could feel shaking deep inside my ears—but here it was! The gray of overcast skies pushed cloud masses against my eyes, and with the wind stiff and bracing against our faces in those open seats, the smell of petrol blew away. Instead, there was now the smell of droplets of water in my nose, the fresh morning smell of clouds. My father veered west, and soon we were passing in the sky above the old city of Prague. From thousands of feet above we could see every block—down below was my grandmother's house in Zizkov among the many terra-cotta roofs, I knew, and to the west the castle mount, and what I remember most then was how I longed to talk to my father about it. I wanted to tell him what it looked like to see that city from above, how close it all seemed and how absurd that a walk from the Charles Bridge up to Grandmother Traute's should feel significant, now seeing that one was but a thumb's length from the other.
But even a shout was lost in the racket of the air in those open areas, and my joy at that flight came in my simply sitting back and taking it in, knowing that my father was taking me skyward. While he had a certain genius at business, in all other venues in life I could remember him only as passive—it was as if he was saving up all his energy and mastery for the two things he cared for most: selling his leather and flying his planes. I do not blame him for it; I know he didn't see that it could make my mother feel he did not give her the attention she deserved, or that it might make me want and need more than he could give.
As we flew southward all the way down to Ceský Krumlov, where we could see the great oxbow in the river, my father's right hand shot out to the leeside, pointing at the massive medieval castle at the village's center. The cloud cover began to burn off, and while wisps of cloud might appear far ahead, that's not what I could see, and it's not what I remember. What I saw for that whole long flight each time my neck grew too stiff to continue craning, to look out at the land below, was the same thing I would see every time I flew with him in the years ahead, the same thing I would see when my father bought a Tiger Moth biplane the following year, that same invisible guide that would be emblazoned on my eyes whenever I flew: I saw before my eyes the back of my father's helmeted head.
Excerpted from The Last Flight of Poxl West by Daniel Torday. Copyright © 2015 Daniel Torday. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
Act One (Skylock: The Memoir of a Jewish RAF Bomber),
Acknowledgment: First Interlude,
Act Two (Skylock),
Acknowledgment: Second Interlude,
Act Three (Skylock),
Act Four (Skylock),
Acknowledgment: Final Interlude,
Act Five (Skylock),
About the Author,
Also by Daniel Torday,
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
Good premise but way too wordy!
Hey! You girlie too sassy. She gonna kill off the human race? Uh-uh. That not happenin'.