The Airplane! novel
In the Cloud Captain’s Coffee Shop, Captain Vernon Demerest ordered tea for Gwen, black coffee for himself. Coffee—as it was supposed to do—helped keep him alert; he would probably down a dozen more cups between here and Rome.
—Arthur Hailey, Airport
Whenever I find myself trying to explain the peculiar appeal of the novels of Arthur Hailey—who for a short period in the late sixties was possibly the bestselling author in the world—I think about the latter of the two sentences above. Another writer might simply have written “He would probably down a dozen more cups between here and Rome,” trusting that the average reader would be aware of the fact that people sometimes drink coffee to keep themselves awake. An author who was a little more anxious about being perfectly clear would have added “Coffee helped keep him alert.” But only Hailey would have written “as it was supposed to do.” Few novelists of any era have ever been so eager to discourage their readers from doing any thinking for themselves. Not trusting us to understand why an airline pilot might want to drink coffee is the least of it: Hailey spent much of his career pulling off the tricky feat of writing “thrillers,” a genre supposedly built on surprise, while never allowing a line to slip past that might even momentarily upset the reader’s equanimity. But sometimes we don’t want to be challenged. And this tells us as much about the needs of his audience, including me, as it does about Hailey himself.
Hailey is all but forgotten today, and I expect that many contemporary readers would confuse him with Alex Haley, the author of Roots. Like Irving Wallace, another fixture of bestseller lists in the sixties and seventies, he has disappeared from public consciousness, and he’s undoubtedly remembered best for the parody of the movie made from his most famous novel. Yet I find him oddly irresistible. When I was moving from New York six years ago, a battered paperback copy of Hotel was the only book I kept in my empty apartment after shipping the rest of my library to Chicago, and I read most of it in a sleeping bag on my bedroom floor. I recently took Airport with me on a vacation to the Dominican Republic, and I devoured it on the beach and on the plane ride home. His books are the perfect summer reads, especially when you mentally picture all the characters, as I do, with the faces of the cast of Mad Men. Hailey’s bland, reassuring, slightly constipated style; his Parade magazine level of research; his predictable plots, which recall nothing so much as an episode of a nighttime soap opera spun out across five hundred pages; they all go down like a glass of warm milk, or a welcome cup of coffee, on a long plane trip when half your attention is directed on the toddler in the seat beside you. Whenever I pick up another novel by Hailey, I’m tempted to say, along with Jeff on Community: “That’s gonna be the worst book I’ll ever read cover to cover.”
Hailey was famous for his level of “realistic” background detail, which is occasionally impressive, but more often consists of characters delivering huge chunks of undigested exposition at ludicrously inappropriate times. At the end of Airport, for instance, there’s a scene in which the heroic airport manager Mel Bakersfield has to decide whether or not to order a crippled plane pushed off the runway to make room for another jet landing after a bomb has blown a hole in its side. At what should be a supreme moment of tension, just minutes before the final choice has to be made, a nearby reporter asks him to comment on the future of aviation. Mel responds with a long lecture on trends in airport design: “A few airports are being built as circles—like doughnuts with car parking inside, instead of somewhere out beyond…” Only after the full speech has been delivered does he turn his attention back to the hundreds of people whose lives hang in the balance. Airport is full of dozens of such excursuses, none of which stick in the memory any longer than a listicle on Buzzfeed. It’s filler, but so are the plot and characters, leaving us with the uncomfortable realization that a novel by Hailey is all filler, and no less delicious as a result. (It’s worth noting that most of his predictions about the coming innovations in air travel, like interchangeable “people-pods” that passengers would board at the terminal before being slotted onto the plane by conveyor belt, turned out to be hilariously wrong.)
Throughout, Hailey is careful to titillate his readers without presenting any ideas that could possibly threaten any of their cherished notions. Captain Vernon Demerest and his stewardess girlfriend Gwen, facing an unplanned pregnancy, discuss the possibility of abortion with a frankness that might have seemed daring at the time—”Maybe, then, a quick flight to Sweden would be the thing”—but it’s counterbalanced, two hundred pages later, by a lengthy argument, delivered by the copilot, in favor of the right to life. The one thing that can be hard to stomach is Hailey’s treatment of race, which tries its best to look progressive while being totally reactionary. His depictions of black characters are relentlessly “positive,” but they exist solely to enable the journeys of the white leads, and they’re described in language so unintentionally monotonous that it only highlights how superficial it all is: “A cheerful young Negro”; “a tall, lean Negro”; “a tall, lean Negro”—again; “the efficient, amiable Negro.” (In subsequent editions, Hailey revised “Negro” to “African-American,” while leaving all the underlying attitudes intact.) None of his books survive as anything other than period pieces, but there’s something irresistible about their sheer complacency, and I expect that I’ll eventually work my way through every title from The Moneychangers to Strong Medicine. And if you tell me that my time would be better spent reading just about anything else, part of me agrees, even as another part feels like responding: “Surely, you can’t be serious.”