"The Last Flight of Poxl West,” by Daniel Torday, St. Martin’s Press, 287 pages, $25.99
Daniel Torday’s debut novel is a tour de force — a meta-fiction that encompasses World War II, Holocaust history, the veracity of memory and a nuanced consideration of truth and fact in memoir.
The novel opens in 1986 and is narrated by 15-year-old Eli, the surrogate nephew of the titular Poxl West. West is a Czech Jewish refugee who flew bombing missions over Germany as a pilot in the Royal Air Force during World War II. Although Poxl is not a blood relative — he is an old friend of the family who taught high-school English in Cambridge, Massachusetts, with Eli’s grandfather — he takes the place of that grandfather who died when Eli was a year old. More to the point, Eli knows that Poxl was not just any European Jew caught up in the maelstrom of World War II: His uncle is “what every Ashkenazi kid in America needed without knowing he needed it: a Jewish war hero...”
Poxl is Eli’s cultural conduit. The two go on outings to the theater and museums in Boston that end at an ice-cream parlor in the suburbs. Over dessert, Poxl regularly reads chapters of his memoir-in-progress to Eli. The adventures that thrill Eli are eventually published as a book called “Skylock.”
Poxl’s multilayered story, folded into Torday’s novel and framed by Eli’s narration, is bright and hopeful in contrast to the survivor memoirs, “dour in their precision,” that burden Eli and his classmates. After all, Poxl is a Jew who killed Nazis — the kind of hero that rouses a kid from his Hebrew-school torpor. Eli proudly proclaims that his uncle “had wrested his fate from the inevitable bearing down of history upon his fellow Ashkenazi Jews. And not only that but he’d lived to write about it too.”
It turns out that Torday’s exuberant and inventive story has an autobiographical veneer. In an essay that he recently published in the online magazine Tablet, he recounts a trip he took to London in the 1990s to find an octogenarian cousin related to his Hungarian-born grandmother. Torday meets the cousin, Honza North, and learns in conversation that he had trained for the RAF during World War II, but was injured before he could fly on a mission. Honza also hands Torday a 20-page manuscript called “Learning Dutch,” which turns out to be a graphic sexual account about a prostitute that he consorted with in the Netherlands.
“I’d come looking for one kind of shore,” Torday writes, “and had washed up on a very different beach from the one that I expected.”
Honza North and his wartime stories became the basis of Poxl West’s fictional memoir. Born Leopold Weisberg 40 miles north of Prague in a small town called Leitmeritz, Poxl was heir to a prosperous leather business. The elder Weisberg was also an amateur pilot who flew a two-seater Be-50. By the time he was a teenager, Poxl was his father’s copilot.
“In the small hangar,” writes Poxl, “I was overcome by the smell of petrol filling the air. As my father went about his work, prepping 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.”
Shakespeare in a cave
Poxl’s mother, meanwhile, was a beauty who had once posed nude for the Austrian artist Egon Schiele. When Poxl happens upon her with another man, he flees Leitmeritz for Rotterdam. Alone and broke in the city, his story turns picaresque when he meets a woman who sings bluegrass music as Maybelle Tennessee. Her real name is Françoise and she makes ends meet as a prostitute. Nevertheless, the two have a close, loving relationship.
Françoise is the second woman, after his mother, to break Poxl’s heart. He flees once again to forget seeing her have sex with an American sailor: “It was the memory of leaving Leitmeritz that afternoon I saw my mother with her [lover]. One foot before the other, all the way to the train station. My body knew just how to leave.” Poxl conveniently has a visa his father arranged for him through a Dutch business associate, and crosses the weather-battered North Sea to England.
Shortly after Poxl arrives in London he enlists with the Civil Defense Department. He starts out driving a mobile canteen during the Luftwaffe’s bombing of the East End. Bravery is very much on his mind as he describes his early war effort as “plagued by a distinct lack of heroism. We followed the squaddies — rescuers— and the firemen, always five or ten minutes behind, ready to provide tea and coffee.” Soon after, though, Poxl rises through the ranks and becomes a squaddie. In the middle of another Luftwaffe attack he meets Glynnis, a nurse, who helps him rescue a man trapped underneath a collapsed building.
Unlike his torrid affair with Françoise, Poxl’s love for Glynnis is quieter, more steadfast. When they have time, they go to the countryside in Kent to visit Glynnis’ mother, Mrs. Goldring, who is waiting out the war in a cave. The scenes in the cave are otherworldly, as if Mrs. Goldring is buried alive. But the visits also glitter with life when she introduces Poxl to Shakespeare’s plays, and the two read “King Lear” and “The Merchant of Venice” together. While her own advancing dementia sharply contrasts to Lear’s madness, the foreshadowing gets a bit heavy-handed as the two pause on Shylock’s famous words, “If you prick us, do we not bleed? If you wrong us, shall we not revenge?”
When Poxl learns that his parents have perished in the Terezin concentration camp and Glynnis has died in a bombing, his thoughts about Françoise’s fate in Rotterdam supplant his grief. Having set his sights on flight school since he came to London, he finally becomes an RAF pilot — a man who crawls into the cockpit of his Lancaster to drop bombs.
“Soon we were clear of Hamburg,” he writes in “Skylock.” “And in those moments I’d exacted revenge on German soil, a face arose in mind so lucidly I couldn’t imagine shaking it, perhaps ever — a face I’d hoped to forget since I left, but which clearly I couldn’t shake: Françoise’s.”
Shortly after its publication, The New York Times praises “Skylock” and the book becomes a best-seller. But Poxl’s success is briefly undermined during his Boston book tour by a graduate student with horn-rimmed glasses and dandruff. The student asks the author, “Isn’t it possible we’ve reached a point of saturation with all the first-person accounts of this particular war?” Poxl replies, “I haven’t considered such a question. This is my life as I lived it. I simply sat down and reported the heroism in which those around me on those harrowing days partook” Impressed with his uncle’s cool demeanor, Eli observes that Poxl was a man who “was the master of his own narrative.”
Wishes and lies
Torday is similarly in charge of his story. In the midst of his impeccably researched book he beautifully modulates Eli’s longing for a Jewish hero. But early on a reader will likely suspect that Poxl’s story is too fantastic to be true. Poxl is unmasked as a fraud and “Skylock” is revealed to be a collection of wishes and lies. The incident dredges up James Frey’s scandalous admission that he made up many of the events in his so-called memoir, “A Million Little Pieces.”
Perhaps more appropriately it recalls Binyamin Wilkomirski’s false memoir, “Fragments: Memories of a Wartime Childhood.” Wilkomirski — his real name is Bruno Dössekke — wrote vividly of his incarceration in Auschwitz as a 3-year-old, and his liberation from the camp at the age of 7. Frey and Wilkomirski might appreciate a fictional alter ego like Poxl, who proclaims: “I told a story —not factually what had happened, but bearing every drop of the truth of what had happened. As Iago himself said, ‘What you know, you know.’” In the end, Eli’s rabbi best explains Poxl’s missteps:
“There was no ancient Aramaic text called the Zohar. There was a book that Moses de Léon wanted to write. A book based on how he saw Adonai, HaShem, the unspeakable represented by the Tetragrammaton, the God he wanted us to reach. And people wouldn’t listen to it from him, so he said he was translating some ancient text — and then he just went ahead and made up his story. That’s what people do when they write. They make up stories, details to fit the stories they need to tell.”
That kind of literary dexterity animates Daniel Torday’s accomplished first novel — a work that deftly navigates between fact and fiction, truth and memoir. “The Last Flight of Poxl West” is not only a brilliant retort to the snarky graduate student’s remark at Poxl’s reading: It is a noteworthy addition to American-Jewish letters.
Judy Bolton-Fasman’s writing has appeared in The New York Times, The Jerusalem Report, The Boston Globe and other venues. She is at work on a memoir about her father called “The Ninety Day Wonder."