Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

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The Airplane! novel

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Airport by Arthur Hailey

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.”

Arthur Hailey

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.”

Written by nevalalee

November 20, 2015 at 10:02 am

Posted in Movies

Tagged with , ,

The lure of trashy fiction

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Yesterday’s posting on the lure of bad movies, like Birdemic, raises the obvious question of whether the same allure clings to certain trashy books. At first glance, it might seem that the answer is no, at least not the same way: while a bad movie can be polished off in ninety minutes, even the junkiest novel usually requires a somewhat greater commitment, which raises the question of whether this is really the best use of one’s time. Life, it seems, is too short to knowingly waste on bad books, especially when so much good stuff remains unread. (Whenever I read a bad book, I feel as if I need to apologize personally to William Faulkner.) And yet I’ve learned a lot from bad fiction as well. As a writer, it’s useful to know something about every kind of literature, especially when you’re trying to make your mark in a genre that has generated its share of junk. And if you don’t read some trash, as well as better books, you’ll have no way of knowing if you can tell the difference.

The trouble, of course, is that one man’s trashy novel is another man’s masterpiece. The early novels of Thomas Harris, for instance, are hugely important to me, but diminishing returns set in about halfway through Hannibal, and by Hannibal Rising, there’s barely a single interesting page. But this, of course, is a judgment call, and some might draw the line much earlier or later. The same is true of Frederick Forsyth, Stephen King, Michael Crichton, or any other prolific popular novelist. Discriminating between the good (The Day of the Jackal) and the bad (The Negotiator) in a single writer’s body of work is an important part of developing one’s own taste. And sometimes a novelist will surprise you. I’ve repeatedly tried and failed to get into Tom ClancyThe Cardinal of the Kremlin nearly put me to sleep on a recent long bus trip—but I was delighted to discover that Without Remorse is a real novel, vicious, compelling, and with bravura set pieces that recall Forsyth, or even James Ellroy.

And sometimes even literary fiction can benefit from a touch of trash. I love John Updike, and believe that the Rabbit novels are among the essential cultural documents of the last century, but if I could own only one Updike novel, it would be Couples, which even his greatest fans seem to think he wrote at least partly for the money. And yet there’s something weirdly exhilarating about seeing Updike’s extraordinary prose and observational skills applied to blatantly commercial material. Updike can’t help being an artist, even when he’s writing a big sexy novel, and I’d argue that Couples, which isn’t that far removed from Peyton Place, was the novel he was born to write. (His later attempt at a “thriller,” in the form of Terrorist, is much less satisfying, and only comes to life whenever Updike revisits his old adulterous territory.)

But have I ever deliberately set out to read a novel that I knew was bad? Sure. While I haven’t managed to make it through Still Missing, for one, I love reading the bestsellers of yesteryear, embodied in the rows of yellowing paperbacks that line the shelves of thrift stores. The 1970s was a particularly rich era for trash. During my move from New York last year, the only book I kept in my empty apartment was a battered copy of Arthur Hailey’s Hotel, which I enjoyed immensely, especially when I mentally recast all the characters with actors from Mad Men. And I’m a little embarrassed to admit how quickly I plowed through Irving Wallace’s The Fan Club—a terrible book, and much less interesting than Wallace himself, but remarkably evocative of its era in popular fiction. Such books may not be great, but they’re an undeniable part of a writer’s education. (As long as they aren’t all you read.)

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