“Wingwalkers: A Novel” By: Taylor Brown
“Wingwalkers: A Novel”
Author: Taylor Brown
Publisher: St. Martin’s Press
Price: $27.99 (Hardcover)
Novel Shows America’s and William Faulkner’s Fascination with Flying
Only 39 years old, Taylor Brown is the author of five novels and a volume of stories, the winner of a clutch of prizes, including Georgia Author of the Year for 2021, and in my opinion, a contender for best new Southern fiction writer.
Brown graduated from UGA in 2005. Instead of graduate school for a PhD or an MFA he went to work writing.
Entranced, as we all are, with Paris in the ’20s as a fine place to live cheaply and write full time, Brown concluded that the right place in that time was Buenos Aires. He went, lived cheaply and wrote.
Success was not instantaneous. There were some stories published then a collection, “In the Season of Blood and Gold,” 2014. These stories, several violent, reveal his wide reading and assimilation of Flannery O’Connor, Harry Crews, Charles Frazier and Cormac McCarthy.
Then, a cascade of novels.
His first, “Fallen Land,” is about survivors caught in the aftermath of the Civil War trying to get home.
Brown, also an avid reader of Janisse Ray, has a powerful interest in environmental matters which is demonstrated in “The River of Kings,” set on the Altamaha River, and in “Pride of Eden,” which features an animal rescue center, except in this case the animals are not puppies and kittens, but lions and elephants, and the stakes are higher.
“Wingwalkers,” the new novel, set in the 1920s and ’30s, is a marvel.
It opens with three distinct chapters, each one a spellbinding complete novella.
The first, set in 1908, features a balloonitic, that is, a man who goes go up in a hot air balloon and then parachutes down in front of the fairgrounds crowds, in this case in Oxford, Mississippi. His balloon crashes down on the Faulkners’ chicken coop.
In the second chapter, 1933, we meet our protagonists, Zeno and Della Marigold, as they perform over Georgia. Zeno, the son of the balloonitic!, was a WWI Ace, badly burned in the war, now flying a reliable Curtiss Flying Jenny, with the beautiful Della walking on the wing and then hanging by her knees, to snatch a cap from a farm boy in a field.
The airplane was new and America was in love with flying, with planes landing in farmers’ fields and pastures, thus “barnstorming,” earning coins from the crowd gathered, faces up.
In chapter three we watch Billy Faulkner and his two brothers build a plane in a shed in secret, out of bean poles tied together and covered with wrapping paper and sheets of newspaper.
They fly off a bluff with Bill at the controls and crash almost immediately. No matter. Young William Faulkner is hooked and when the Great War breaks out, he will falsify papers, put on a fake English accent, and join the Royal Air Force in Canada, finishing ground school but never actually learning to fly, although he would return to Oxford wearing his uniform with wings and stick to his story forever.
In alternating chapters we watch Zeno and Della move west—their final goal is Hollywood, where air combat movies are being made, and we watch the Mississippi novelist growing up, suffering the disappointments of unrequited love, then learning to fly, marrying the girl he wanted and achieving considerable literary success and fame.
Faulkner and the Marigolds move separately through time and space, until they meet by chance or fate at the opening of the New Orleans Shushan Airport. They carouse through The Quarter together, all night long.
“Wingwalkers,” even more than Brown’s earlier novels, is told in a high-octane prose, full of coinages and kennings, not merely reminiscent of Faulkner’s but amazingly like it. His descriptions of landscape make you see it anew and even the mundane sparkles: of Faulkner’s brother having a Coke, he writes, “The sweet elixir crackled on his tongue. The chips of ice shifted and popped, an arctic landscape emerging from the thick bowl of fountain glass.”
There is no discernable limit to the number of novels Brown’s future holds or where his interests may take him. This is truly a writer to watch.
Don Noble’s newest book is Alabama Noir, a collection of original stories by Winston Groom, Ace Atkins, Carolyn Haines, Brad Watson, and eleven other Alabama authors.