Archive for 1

Who’s More Experienced, the Copilot or the Captain?

June 1, 2022

YESTERDAY was my birthday. I’m old. And I can’t believe the “Ask the Pilot” franchise has been running now for twenty years.

My first job as an airline pilot was in 1990. My first plane was an antique 15-seater with no pressurization or autopilot. I’d just turned twenty-four, and was one of the youngest pilots at the company. I made a thousand bucks a month, flying four days a week, in and out of the awful New England weather.

Suffice it to say my salary has improved. Nowadays I earn more on the average flight, wheels up to wheels down, than I made in an entire month flying those Beech 99s. I don’t mean that as a brag. It’s not that I’m overpaid today so much as I was ridiculously underpaid in those days.

On the downside, I’m no longer, by any stretch, one of the youngest pilots at my airline. This is depressing for the reasons you’d expect, but also has its advantages. I’m now one of the most senior pilots in my category, and can more or less pick and choose my trips, my time off, and so forth. I fly where and when I want to, as much or as little as I like. My salary has never been better, and neither has my quality of life — or “QOL” as pilots call it. The price I pay is being an old bastard with most of his life behind him.

Everything at an airline comes down to seniority. The moment a pilot is hired, he or she is the most junior pilot in the company, and from there begins the long climb upward. How quickly you ascend depends on different things: the health of the industry, the growth (or contraction) of your airline, and so on. As older pilots retire and new ones are taken on, up the list you go.

And because each airline has its own seniority list, your number is of value only within that company. When a pilot is out of work, for whatever reason, he or she cannot slide over to another airline and pick up where they left off. There is no sideways transfer of benefits or salary, ever. If you move to a different company, you begin again at the bottom, at probationary pay and benefits, regardless of experience.

For this reason — at least at the major carrier level, and once you’ve accrued a reasonable amount of seniority — it’s almost unheard of for a pilot to move from one airline to another. It’s also why any sort of industry upheavals (COVID, wars, recessions) make pilots very nervous. If your company goes bust, you lose everything.


My airline has roughly 13,000 pilots and I sit somewhere in the 4,000s. But it’s not that simple: there are lists within that list, broken down by base city, aircraft assignment, and seat (captain or copilot). Some bases are, on the whole, more senior than others, depending where pilots prefer to live or commute to. The same goes for aircraft type. Being senior in one base, or in one plane, doesn’t mean being senior in another base, or in another plane.

In my base city (New York), in my aircraft type (767), and in my seat (copilot), I’m in the top ten percent of seniority. A desirable place to be. However, if I were to change to a different base, or bid to captain, or bid to first officer on a higher paying plane, my ranking could drop considerably. I might earn more money, but my QOL wouldn’t be as cushy. My schedule, my commute, the trips I fly — everything would be more difficult. It’s a tradeoff. For the time being, I’ll take the QOL.

The potential training commitment is another reason I’ve been hesitant. The last thing I feel like doing right now is sitting through a month of training to learn an entirely new plane. I enjoy the 767, including its mix of domestic and international flying. Europe, Africa, domestic coast-to-coast… it’s an enjoyable mix.

And this results in situations like the one I found myself in the other day, when I was working a flight to Mexico City. The captain was a decade younger than me, and far more junior overall. I’d been hired in 2001; he’d been hired in 2015. I was older, more senior, and considerably more experienced than he was. For whatever reasons, he prefers life as a (very) junior captain than he would as more senior copilot. Maybe it’s the money. Maybe it’s ego, or a sense of fulfillment that comes with being called “captain.” I didn’t ask.

Bear in mind that I’m talking mostly about the United States. In other parts of the world, the seniority system isn’t as rigid. Copilots are often hired with very low experience levels, and upgrades to captain aren’t always based on tenure.

But here at home, a copilot becomes a captain not merely by virtue of skill, but when his or her seniority standing allows it. And not every copilot wants to become a captain right away.

Beyond the salary and responsibility aspects, the two positions aren’t a whole lot different from each other. “Copilot” is a colloquial term for first officer, and contrary to what a lot of people think, a first officer is not an apprentice. He or she shares on-the-job duties more or less equally with the captain. The captain is in charge, and earns a larger paycheck, but both individuals fly the plane. Copilots perform just as many takeoffs and landings as captains do, in pretty much all weather conditions, and both are part of the decision-making process.

That’s good enough for me. We’ll see how things look in another year. For now, I’m happy and staying put.

 

Epaulets photo by the author.

Related Story:

THIRTY YEARS ON
LIFE DURING COVID

Comments (12)

Here Comes the Summer

May 15, 2022

AIRLINES are understaffed, employees are overworked, passenger volumes are back to pre-pandemic levels, masks are off. And here come the three busiest travel months of the year. We’re already at the ragged edge of the envelope; just wait until those midsummer thunderstorms start barreling in. It’s going to be messy. If you bring one thing to the airport this summer, have it be this: patience.

I’m not the only one sounding the alarm. The major media, along with all the travel blogs, have been putting out their warnings as well. I like to believe that precisely because there’s so much hype, chances are things won’t turn out as bad as everyone says. So think of this post as a kind of reverse jinx. I’ll be traveling a lot in the next few months, and would prefer to keep my frazzle levels low.

Part of the mess is due to an ongoing pilot shortage, as I’m sure you’ve heard. In fact there are two pilot shortages, the effects of which are overlapping. One is short-term and mostly the result of poor planning. The second is more systemic and longer term.


When I say “poor planning,” I’m talking about the industry’s failure to adequately re-staff as things swung back to normal. However, while on the surface the airlines look pretty stupid, it’s not that simple: Consider the environment at the height of COVOD-19 downturn. The industry had never faced anything like this, and was desperate to stay alive. There was no way of predicting when, or to what extent, flyers would return. As the virus ebbed and surged, travel restrictions and border closings changed week to week; absolutely nothing was certain, and almost nobody predicted a return to 2019 numbers so soon. The expectation, so much as there was one, was of a gradual, incremental return.

Air travel logistics are challenging enough in normal times, never mind when the entire world has flipped upside-down. When it came to aligning their fleets and staffing, they did what they calculated was the smartest thing to do. Some guessed better than others — and that’s what it was to a big degree: guesswork.

Airlines are now taking on hundreds of new-hire pilots every month. This, combined with the lingering effects of the pandemic reshuffling, finds training departments overwhelmed, with long backlogs for classroom time, simulator slots, line certification flights, and so on. Many pilots are sitting at home, waiting their turn. Thus, it’s less a dearth of pilots than a training system overload.

Then we have the other, more systemic shortage. As I talked about in this older article, this is a significantly bigger problem at the regional carrier level than at the majors. All of the biggest airlines are currently hiring, and although they’re having no trouble filling their openings, those pilots have to come from somewhere, with high requisite levels of skill and experience. This is causing a ripple effect downward through the industry. The regional sector has all but reinvented itself in a plea for pilots, offering salary and benefits packages heretofore unheard of for entry-level airline pilots.

What nobody is talking about, meanwhile, is the issue of airspace and runway saturation. This is an even bigger factor than anything related to labor. Airlines continue adding planes into a system already at maximum capacity, especially in the eastern half of the U.S. It was bad enough pre-pandemic. Now, several upstart carriers are pumping even more airplanes into the sky.

Things run fairly smoothly when the weather is good, but the minute a storm develops, blocking off air routes, the delays and cancellations start to cascade. There’s no slack, no logistical breathing room. Even on clear-weather days, the taxiway queues at airports like Newark or La Guardia can be hours long.

It’s hard to say to what impact all of this will have on the summer of 2022. Pilots are just one of the moving parts.

Things might get messy, no doubt. But try to look at the bright side: People are out and about. Borders and attractions are (mostly) open. Travel is back. I wasn’t sure we’d get here, so count me among those who are happy to see a little chaos again at the airport.

 

“Here Comes the Summer” is a horrible song by the Undertones. Here’s a better one.

Related Stories:

THE MELANCHOLY OF AN EMPTY AIRPORT
BIG PLANES, SHORT ROUTES. WHAT A CONCEPT.
FACT AND FALLACY OF THE PILOT SHORTAGE

Comments (8)

Travel Photos: The Textures Series

May 5, 2022

I ALWAYS take the same picture. Or the same style of picture. There’s a theme, for lack of a better term, that I’m drawn to. Usually it’s a wall or a door or other flat surface, the weatherbeaten elements of which are similar: sun-cracked paint, peeling artwork, crumbling plaster or fissured stucco.

I call these my “texture” pictures, though it’s not that simple. It’s a combination of things: textures, patterns, geometry, colors — with a certain something that pulls it all together. In other words, there needs to be aesthetic merit to the shot. As to which make the cut and which don’t, there’s no formal criteria. In the words of Potter Stewart, I know it when I see it.

They’re travel photos by default, and I’ll go ahead and label the locations. But contextually they don’t say much. Most of them could be anywhere. Most focus on a single surface, but a few, as you’ll see, such as number 20, are more complicated.

Click any photo for a full-screen view.

ALL PHOTOS BY THE AUTHOR.

1. Blue window.   Accra, Ghana.

2. Remnants.   Kandy, Sri Lanka.

3. Shutters.   St. Louis, Senegal.

4. Green door.   Lisbon, Portugal.

5. Norwegian wood.   Oslo, Norway.

6. Brown.   Big Sur, California.

7. Splinter.   Porter Square, Cambridge, Massachusetts.

8. Checkerboard.   Kyoto, Japan.

9. Earth Tones.   Dubrovnik, Croatia.

10. Wall and Shutters.   Cairo, Egypt.

11. Brown.   Accra, Ghana.

12. Stones and Moss.   Boston Harbor.

13. Bud Light.   Massachusetts Avenue, Cambridge.

14. Vive al Paro.   Santa Marta, Colombia.

15. Post no Bills.   Chapel Hill, North Carolina.

16. Facades.   Porto, Portugal.

17. Deicing Fluid.   Boeing 757, New York City.

18. French Quarter 1.   New Orleans.   The wash of the colors make this photo appear blurry. It’s actually in normal focus.

19. French Quarter 2.   New Orleans.

20. Norwegian Blue.   Tromso, Norway.

21. Fertility Art.   Near Paro, Bhutan.

22. Cotraco.   Valetta, Malta.

23. Storefront, Ponta Delgada.   Sao Miguel island, Azores.

24. Alewife 1: Blisters.   Alewife T station, Cambridge, Massachusetts.

25. Alewife 2: Silver.   Alewife T station, Cambridge, Massachusetts.

26. Corrugated Wall.   Dakar, Senegal.

27. Boy and Doorway.   Near Monrovia, Liberia. This is the only picture of the set featuring a person.

28. Granary Door.   Noratus, Armenia.

29. Faucets and Feet.   Kowloon, Hong Kong.

30. Doorway and Thatch.   Ada, Ghana.

I don’t seek out these shots; if one appears, I take it. They more or less happen on their own.

If you’re wondering about enhancement, a few of the pictures have been cropped, and in some cases the shadows and color saturation have been tinkered with. But only slightly, to replicate what I saw with the naked eye. “No overdubs or funny stuff,” to quote the liner notes from Zen Arcade.

My favorite of the series is number 26, showing the paint-dappled wall of a small shop near the U.S. embassy in Dakar. It was taken in August, 2021, as I was walking to a restaurant with two of my colleagues. The canvas, if you will, is the side of an old shipping container. I remember passing this spot, then backtracking to get the picture, telling my friends I’d catch up with them in a minute.

My second favorite is number 14, the shot of the myriad posters in Santa Marta, Colombia. Believe it or not this picture was taken at night, with a streetlight providing the illumination.

I’m also fond of number 25, showing the silver-painted concrete inside the Alewife subway station in Cambridge, as well as number 30, last picture in the set, of the doorway in Ada, a waterfront village in Ghana, about two hours east of Accra.

More of my travel photos can be viewed HERE.

My Instagram stream is HERE.

 

Comments (11)

Rarefied Air

April 21, 2022

FLY ENOUGH, and every so often you’ll encounter this or that famous — or infamous — person.

Maybe it’s a pop star. Maybe a film star. Maybe a newscaster, an athlete, or a washed-up comedian nobody remembers (see below). Maybe it’s 1981 and you’re a ninth-grader, standing in baggage claim at the Los Angeles airport, and the actor known as “Mr. T” walks past you with his entourage.

As a pilot, I have the added thrill of not just seeing or perhaps sharing a row of seats with whomever it is, but being somewhat indispensable to whatever journey he or she is embarking on — be it a flight home from an awards show or a trip to rehab. They’re counting on me.

Or so it’s fun to think…


The thing about Mr. T is that he was short. Or shorter than he should have been, as I understood it. There’s always something about a celebrity that catches you off guard.

Spike Lee was on board once. This was a shuttle flight from Boston to La Guardia. Lee also is on the shorter side, but I knew that ahead of time.

Kevin McHale, the Hall of Fame basketball star from the Boston Celtics, is not short. One afternoon I was working a flight from Atlanta to San Francisco, and Kevin was sitting in first class. “You and me go way back,” I said to him. This was a reference to the days in the early 1980s when I followed every Celtics game, and McHale was the power forward of the team’s “big three” attack, along with Larry Bird and Robert Parish.

(As it happens, some years ago I was waiting to appear on a local television show, and I shared the green room with none other than Robert Parish. It was just the two of us, and we chatted for a few minutes. That was cool.)

About two months after the flight to San Francisco, I was standing at the gate in Boston waiting to board a plane to JFK, when I looked over and there, again, was Kevin McHale. “Hey!” I said. “I flew you out to San Francisco a couple of months ago!”

Kevin McHale didn’t seem impressed. I guess I don’t blame him.

Another time it was Dan Rather. “What’s the frequency, Kenneth?” I said to the captain. He didn’t get the joke. You probably don’t, either. It’s an old reference.

Dan Rather is old. I’m old. Everyone is old.

Kirk Douglas was certainly old. He lived to be 103. And although I never met or flew Kirk Douglas, I did carry his famous son, the actor Michael, on a run from JFK to LAX. I learned later that Michael had been en route to his father’s centennial birthday celebration.

I knew who Michael Douglas was right away, but in general my celebrity recognition skills are poor.

Kanye West was on my plane coming back from Zurich. I remember he walked aboard carrying a glass of cognac that he’d taken from the lounge. I was standing near the doorway, and as he passed I made some goofy remark about people bringing drinks onto planes. A flight attendant took me aside and told me the guy was Kanye West. I had only the vaguest idea who Kanye West was, and until that moment couldn’t have told you what he looked like.

Another night, there was a buzz among the cabin crew because “one of the Kardashians” was sitting in row two. I seemed to be the only person on the plane who didn’t know what a Kardashian was. I’d heard the name enough times, sure, but it didn’t mean much to me. I knew they were a celebrity family for some bizarre reason — though, to me, the name has always makes me think of an arms dealer or a Wall Street villain. When I looked over at row two, I saw a pleasantly dressed woman reading a magazine. This was a Kardashian?

Which one was it? I don’t remember.

At the gate in Los Angeles one morning, a couple come aboard and take their place in business class. They have a kid with them, a toddler. They’re conspicuous for a few different reasons. For one, their clothes and haircuts are — I don’t know how to describe it, exactly. Flamboyant, I guess is the word. The woman has plumes of hair going in all directions, like Sideshow Bob. The kid, who is maybe three, has a miniature version of the same hair, but in a more vertical, mohawk style. He’s wearing a brightly striped onesie outfit that appears to be made of silk. He’s kicking and fussing and screaming. Later I’m told that that the woman is the singer Alicia Keys, and the little troublemaker is her son.

Would you recognize the former news anchor Katie Couric? I didn’t, but she was on my plane a few years ago, and, long story short, ended up borrowing my iPhone charger. I gave Ms. Couric my card and told her to let me know if ever she needed help with a story about airplanes or airlines. One morning, not long afterwards, she called me at home, with questions about something that had been in the news. I forget what the topic was, and nothing ever came of it.

I flew the actor F. Murray Abraham out of Bucharest, Romania. This was a big one for me, because Abraham has the starring role in what, to me, is the funniest scene even filmed in the history of television. I’m talking about the Russian Tea Room scene with Louis C.K. during season three of the show “Louie.” You can view it here. The genius of this scene can’t be overstated. I wanted to tell the actor that, but I kept my mouth shut.

I did not keep my mouth shut the afternoon I flew Anthony Bourdain from Ireland to the U.S. This was in 2012, shortly before my book was published. The title of my book is, of course, a derivative ripoff of Bourdain’s famous book, “Kitchen Confidential.” I’d always felt uneasy about this, and here was my chance to let Mr. Bourdain know. “The publisher forced it on me,” I said to him, lying through my teeth.

He laughed.

And we haven’t even gotten to presidents…

I’ve met three presidents. None of them American presidents, but presidents nevertheless. The first of them was John Atta Mills, the semi-beloved leader of Ghana. Mills died in 2012, but during his tenure he rode aboard my airplane at least twice.

I also had the honor of meeting and flying the President of Guyana, Bharat Jagdeo. (Contrary to what my father and others seem to think, Ghana and Guyana are in fact different countries, on different continents, with different presidents to boot.)

Third on the list is Ellen Johnson Sirlief, Nobel Peace Prize laureate and former President of Liberia. I met her four times, including once at a reception at Roberts Field. On one of those occasions, I asked if she’d be kind enough to sign a copy of our flight plan. She obliged, writing her name in green ink at the bottom of the dot-matrix printout.

Things have worked out well for me, I think. Years ago, when I was puttering around over Plum Island, sweating to death in some noisy old Cessna, the idea that one day I’d be be carrying presidents in the back of my plane would have struck me as ludicrous.

Next we have the would-be presidents…

Doing this chronologically, we have to go all the way back a weekend afternoon in 1980. I’m at Boston’s Logan Airport, planespotting with a pair of my junior high pals, when who disembarks from a TWA jet only a few feet in front of us but Jerry Brown, then-governor (and, later, governor again!) of California. Brown was running for President that year along with Jimmy Carter, John Anderson and Ronald Reagan.

In addition to his political aspirations, Governor Brown, a.k.a. “Governor Moonbeam,” is known for his dabbling in Buddhism, his long liaison with Linda Ronstadt, and his appearance in one of the most famous punk rock songs — the Dead Kennedys’ “California Über Alles.”

Six years after that, on a Sunday morning in 1990, I’m standing at Teterboro Airport, a busy general aviation field in New Jersey, close to New York City. A private jet pulls up. The stairs come down, and out steps Jesse Jackson and several burly bodyguards. Jackson walks into the terminal, passing me by inches.

The following summer I’m back at Logan, using a payphone in Terminal E. Suddenly Ted Kennedy is standing at the phone next to me, placing a call. (Quaint, I know, in this age of wireless, but there’s the famous Senator, the brother of JFK, slipping dimes into the slot.) I’m talking to a friend, and I surreptitiously hold up the receiver. “Listen,” I say, “whose voice is this?”

“Sounds like Ted Kennedy,” she reckons. And it is.

Next it’s 1994. Logan again, and I’m in the captain’s seat of a Northwest Airlink 19-seater, preparing for departure to Baltimore. Up the front stairs comes Michael Dukakis, who in 1988 had lost the election in a landslide to George Bush the Elder. He stops briefly behind the cockpit and says hello.

After we land in Baltimore, Dukakis thanks us for the ride and remarks, “Not a lot of room in here.” Even at 5’8″ he’s right about that. The Metroliner’s skinny, tubular fuselage earned it the nickname “lawn dart.”

“Yeah,” I answer, “It’s not exactly Air Force One.”

Meanwhile, intentionally or otherwise, the Duke has left a sheaf of important-looking papers in his seat pocket — probably because he’s run to a phone to cuss out his secretary for booking him on that stupid little plane with the annoying pilot. I carry the papers inside to the counter. “Here,” I say to the agent. “These belong to Mike Dukakis.” She looks at me like I’m crazy.

In 2012 I shared a shuttle flight from New York to Boston with Chelsea Clinton. She and her husband were sitting just a few rows ahead of me. At one point I was taking something down from the overhead locker when she passed me in the aisle. I was in her way and had to move aside. “Sorry,” I said. “Excuse me.”

“Thanks,” said Chelsea Clinton.

All of those people were Democrats. Rounding things off ideologically, I once had the controversial Supreme Court nominee Robert Bork on my plane. That was in the summer of 1991. Bork was riding in my rattletrap 15-seater from Boston to Nantucket.

That same summer, again to Nantucket in the same shitty plane, I flew David Atkins, better known to the world as “Sinbad,” the thankfully-forgotten actor and comedian who once had his own talk show and HBO comedy special. He sat in the back row of the Beech-99, surrounded by an entourage of beautiful women.

Okay, “thankfully-forgotten” is a cruel thing to say, even if he did wind up emceeing the Miss Universe pageant. Sinbad couldn’t have been friendlier, and in the Compass Rose restaurant at the Nantucket airport he bought me and my copilot chicken sandwiches, asking us for advice on what kind of airplane he should buy. We told him to invest in a Cessna Citation — a twin-engine executive jet — though I can’t remember why. I was making about thirteen grand a year at the time, and would have said anything for a chicken sandwich.

The great New York Yankees catcher Thurman Munson was killed at the controls of a Cessna Citation in 1979, but I don’t think we mentioned this to Sinbad.

 

Related Stories:

POLITICS, PLANES, AND PILOT BLACK MAGIC

Comments (33)

The Latest Books by Jonathan Franzen and Gary Shteyngart

April 15, 2022

TWO OF my favorite authors have new books out. Or newish, anyway. Both were published towards the end of last year. I finally got around to reading them.

Let me start by acknowledging my fondness, normally, for Gary Shteyngart, the Russian-born novelist whose early books included the satirical hits “Absurdistan” and “The Russian Debutante’s Handbook.” And the main reason I’m fond of Gary is because he’s funny. To be clear, his stories have never quite been comedies in and of themselves. They’re bigger and smarter than that. But in the way that Kurt Vonnegut once did, he knows how to lay out a sentence just so. It’s a laconic, almost conspiratorial kind of funny that you either love or hate or miss entirely: a grace note of humor on the surface, helping deliver a deeper and more poignant sentiment. The structure is funny; the meaning, maybe, is not. Thus I cackled my way through those aforementioned novels, and loved every minute of Gary’s memoir, “Little Failure,” which is possibly my favorite of his works.

Not this time. “Our Country Friends” is the story of a cluster of sharp-tongued urban creative types who gather in upstate New York to ride out the coronavirus pandemic. They banter, they fight, they drink, they sleep with each other and prepare rustic-gourmet meals. If that sounds uninteresting, or worse, that’s because it is. It’s also, whether through lack of effort, or, because the author, who usually isn’t so squeamish, considered it distasteful to encourage laughter amidst a health crisis, wholly unfunny, lacking any of that Shteyngartian deadpan I’ve come to love. Always in a Shteyngart book are those moments when I pause to savor a sentence or passage, suppressing (or not) the urge to laugh out loud. Not once in 320 pages did “Our Country Friends” trigger much as a giggle. On the contrary, I couldn’t wait for it to end.

The impression I’m left with is that Gary Shteyngart, whose alter-ego we see as the protagonist Sasha Senderovsky, really did escape to rural New York to ride out the pandemic, then for some misguided reason felt like he had to write a book about it. He was mistaken. Unless, that is, you’re idea of a rewarding book is a strained and humorless tale of a group of insufferable intellectuals who can’t decide if they love or hate each other — a weird “Uncle Vanya” of Oberlin grads disaster partying in the woods.

To enjoy a story, you need to enjoy the people in it. You do not, necessarily, need to empathize with or even respect them as humans, but as characters you need to like, or at least be entertained by them. Well, it’s hard to like anyone in this book. Not the neurotic Sasha or his equally neurotic wife. Not the soulful Indian professor and his secretly brilliant manuscript. Not the sexy, Southern firecracker essayist. And absolutely not the Senderovskys’ hyper-precocious, K-Pop obsessed young daughter, Natasha. I’ve met kids like this. They’re impressive, but always irritating. This one especially so. Are these the people Gary hangs around with when he’s not writing?

It’s possible, of course, that I’m tone-deaf to the whole enterprise. Perhaps we’re not supposed to like these people? If so, well done.

Then there’s the whole COVID backdrop. “There cannot be a more relevant novel for our moment,” says Andrew Sean Greer in a blurb. Did anyone besides me just roll their eyes? Kirkus Reviews takes it a step higher: “The Great American Pandemic Novel,” they call it. All right, but did we really, truly, need one of those? Worse, there’s a persistent whiff of editorializing that runs through the text — in case we require a little more consciousness-raising on matters of COVID, face masks, BLM, Trumpism and so forth. This style of sanctimony is unusual for Gary, and however lightly he plays it, it’s unnecessary and distracting.

I’m looking at the author’s jacket photo. There’s something, a gravity, to it that doesn’t feel right. It’s too pensive, too posed. Is Gary Shteyngart jumping the fiction shark, trying (too hard) to reinvent himself as a “serious” and less funny writer? Let’s hope not. Those things are not mutually exclusive. He knows that.

 

My feelings couldn’t be more different, on the other hand, for Jonathan Franzen’s “Crossroads.”

Set mostly in 1971, this magisterial, thunderously passionate novel is an exploration of the Hildebrandt family: Russ, a pastor in suburban Illinois, his wife Marion, and their four children. All of whom, in their own ways, find themselves consumed by guilt and secret shame, and become hellbent on the prospect of change.

And I do mean exploration: the Hildebrandts are rendered in such compelling detail that it’s hard to keep in mind this is fiction. You are drawn so intimately into this family, face to face with its foibles and fears and failures, that it may as well be your own. How a writer can get so deep into the heads of fictional characters, then make those characters so intensely interesting to a reader, is something I cannot fathom. Nobody does this better than Jonathan Franzen, and he’s never done it as well as he does here.

“Crossroads” covers some big territory: Christianity, moral redemption, the dynamics of friendship and family, and the cultural verves of the 1970s. There are a lot of moving parts, thematically. (The title takes its name from a Christian youth group the characters become enmeshed in.) Trying to grasp it all, never mind analyze it here, is beyond my pay grade, as they say; it exceeds my capabilities as a reader, a fan, and a hack blogger. I’ll leave that to the professional reviewers. There are some excellent takes out there, in the New Yorker and elsewhere. All I know for sure is that I loved this book and couldn’t put it down.

I even laughed out loud a few times: “The vanity of believing that his sheepskin coat made him look like anything but a fatuous, obsolete, repellent clown.” And just as Gary Shteyngart’s book does, “Crossroads” includes a wayward and precocious child, in this case the adolescent Perry Hildebrandt. But unlike the obnoxious little girl in “Our Country Friends,” Perry, for all his transgressions, is actually likable and endearing.

When I’d read the the jacket flap at the bookstore at Kennedy Airport, I had my doubts. It just didn’t sound that interesting. Even the cover art seemed kind of a downer. And at 580 pages, quite a bit of time was at stake, not to mention space in my carry-on luggage (I don’t do electronic copies). Not only that, but novelists, like rock bands, tend to hit their creative strides in early to mid-career, then taper off (that’s somewhere around album three if you’re the Clash or Husker Du). Franzen is still young, sure, but this is his sixth novel, to go with several essay collections. And no way, I thought, could he ever outdo “The Corrections.”

But I was wrong, and he has. I feel like I’ll remember this book forever.

________

 

Is there a tie-in to commercial aviation here? Not at all, though some of you might remember that both Shteyngart and Franzen drew my ire for their use of the term “roller board” a few years back. You can revisit those complaints here and here.

There’s also this:

 

Comments (6)