Franklin Flyerby Nicholas Christopher
Dial, 320 pp., $24.95
Named for the tornado-tossed train aboard which he was born, the hero (and I do mean hero) of Nicholas Christopher's fourth novel is as dashing, daring, and quixotic as they come, much like the book named for him. Christopher is a storyteller, that much is certain, but in the past he has been pegged as a streaky kind of writer. In such fantastically ambitious fictions as Veronica and A Trip to the Stars, he found solid gold and solid junk, lucid jazz and desultory jazzercise, often in the same paragraph. He finds more of the same here. Born in 1907, Franklin drifts until attending Harvard on an athletics scholarship. After dropping out, he moves to New York, finding an apprenticeship with an inventor. This, of course, is related within the span of the first five pages, in retrospect -- one of the many episodic devices Christopher utilizes -- on October 29, 1929. Franklin has quit his job, and standing on the roof of his former building, his yellow fedora flies off into the wind. "Had his hat tumbled to the street, the young man thought, squinting through the glare, he would have let it go." It hasn't, and when it lands through an office window across the way, Franklin decides to investigate. There he discovers a photograph of a "fair-haired young woman with olive skin. ... It was a face unlike any he had ever seen, wonderfully balanced, yet imperfect, as if each element had been uniquely created before being set into a whole." Whether the rest of Franklin's journey is a conscious effort to find her is irrelevant. The journey's the thing.
Along the way, he finds himself in approximately every major moment of American history from 1929 through 1942, with each of Christopher's chapters divided into one of those years. It's a neat trick -- Franklin's in Argentina as a translator for a Nazi digging for the ultimate metal, a gig that leads to a life of espionage and acquaintances with OSS founder Wild Bill Donovan and FDR; Franklin's in Alabama saving a black man, where he meets one of his many, many conquests, a Chicago blues singer named Narcissa who will befriend Josephine Baker; Franklin's in Yankee Stadium watching Lou Gehrig's last World Series game. But all tricks have their suspensions of disbelief. All noir and all pulp have their suspensions of disbelief, too. Escapism is Christopher's business, and he doesn't hide it. His workmanlike yet literary prose, steeped as it is in history, rushes by in a page-turning blur of breezy color, with shades of Hammett, Purdy, Greene, Le Carré, and Whitehead. Though he makes his thematic motivation all but transparent by the end of Franklin Flyer -- a man makes his own life, and that life is eternal no matter how it ends up, so have no fear -- it sure is fun to look through the glass for a while.