Clyde Edgerton’s ‘Solo: My Adventure in the Air’: A Review
Solo: My Adventure in the Air
By Clyde Edgerton
Algonquin Books, $23.95, 276 pages.
Reviewed by Robert Lalasz
[This review originally appeared in the Raleigh News & Observer on 18 September 2005.]
Of all the boy’s games that make up war, flying a military plane remains the most boyish. Your mission might be nuclear-tipped, but you’re also just Superman in a thin steel cape, dogfighting with your buddies in the fastest toy around while the carnage and the messy emotions of the ground campaign lie far below.
Clyde Edgerton’s “Solo,” a memoir about the North Carolina novelist’s abiding infatuation with flying, struggles with this dichotomy. A decorated Air Force pilot who flew reconnaissance in the Vietnam War, Edgerton wants to indict the military for exploiting its troops’ teenage notions of glory and gallantry. But his 8-year-old’s excitement at the stuff of war flight — visored helmets, cockpits that fit like favorite jeans, or afterburner takeoffs to 15,000 feet in 30 seconds — keep getting in the way. It’s a half-hearted disillusionment, because he’s still in love.
In retrospect — as retrospect tends to do — Edgerton’s attraction to flight seems fated. An asthmatic child, he gravitated toward danger with the encouragement of his mother, who toughened young Clyde up by taking him to funerals and showing him the state prison electric chair and pushing him back out the front door to fight with a bully who had chased him home. “She encouraged independence,” says Edgerton, with a characteristic understatement that veers in this book toward the subterranean.
She also took him to airports, with predictably addicting results. He ended up lying about his asthma to get into ROTC at UNC-Chapel Hill, and soon he was training to be an Air Force pilot, just as Vietnam was getting sticky. The war was where Edgerton wanted to be, but he was terrified of not measuring up, about getting chronic airsickness or messing up his barrel rolls and getting booted into navigator training, a fate apparently worse than death.
Edgerton measured up. He moved quickly from propeller planes to jets and bombers, usually getting his pick of the litter. He learned how to make a supersonic bird scale the face of a cloud, then flip upside down and fall the same way — with the engine off — before snapping back into a climb.
“This was about the best thing I’d ever done,” he says after roaring between two trees at 300 miles per hour. “I had driven a car at age eight from my mother’s lap and by twelve had sat behind the steering wheel along on country roads. And now this. What else could life be about?”
The gentle irony of that statement — a single cloud chasing across the noonday sun — exemplifies Edgerton’s approach in “Solo”: to approximate his own state of mind at the time, with his present judgments rarely peeking through. But the conceit is more straitjacket than flight jacket. Too often he dwells on surface and routine, giving us breathlessly long recitations of pre-flight checklists and instructional manuals that test then exceed our patience. Anecdotes, particularly in the second half of the book, bubble up and die away without knitting together, like 1 a.m. jokes swapped at the officers’ club.
And there’s a distance in his voice that verges on aerial photography. The death of a buddy who ejected from his burning plane is described as if Edgerton is under hypnosis, the horror not in the details but in the flatness of the telling, and the way he immediately goes back to worrying which plane he’ll be assigned to next. Of course, that’s the author’s point — that his obsession with gear and physics was a classic male dodge from fear and pain. But one longs at times for how James Salter or Thom Jones or Edgerton the novelist would have dug into this material.
As for Vietnam, Edgerton describes tasks range from the thrilling (taking fire while searching for downed pilots) to the ridiculous (dropping into the jungle trees that are actually listening devices). Although he agreed with the domino theory and wrote a letter to his father telling him to vote for Nixon, his attitude toward the war degrades with the grinding ground losses, not to mention the loss of friends.
But it’s a surprise when he suddenly confesses toward book’s end that “the Vietnam War follows me around like a small, dark, deadly cloud, just over my shoulder … accompanied by remnants of fear, pride, shame, exhilaration, and sadness.” This complicated reaction makes total sense — but why didn’t he make more of it throughout the book? One senses that Edgerton is still sifting through his experience, that he is not yet ready to explore this personal terrain.
The last section of “Solo” describes how the author, after a long post-Vietnam period in which he flew only sporadically, becomes infatuated with planes again in 1989 — specifically, with an old Piper Super Cruiser that flies fitfully (when he can get it started) and has to be cranked into its hanger by hand. The plane, which Edgerton names “Annabelle,” leads him to the main thread of his novel “The Floatplane Notebooks” and helps him reclaim the joy of flight.
“All of this was wonderfully anti-Air Force, antimodern, antitechnological,” he says of the experience. The boy returns, giggling even through a 1991 crash that totals the plane and leaves him and his passenger dangling upside down by their seat belts.
“Solo” is best approached with the same lightness of spirit, as a book for friends and an act of slightly troubled nostalgia. Amidst the flight logs and stick-and-rudder lessons, it does give you a whiff of the bedewed infield grass at dawn, and the sensation of what it feels like to take on and enjoy a thing totally alone, the way we hardly do anymore.