Colum McCann: “Transatlantic” from The New Yorker, 4/16/12

British commemorative of Alcock & Brown's flight

British commemorative of Alcock & Brown's flight

When they met for the first time, in the Vickers factory in Brooklands, Weyridge, in early 1919, Alcock and Brown took one look at each other and understood immediately that what they both wanted was a clean slate. The obliteration of memory. The creation of a new moment: raw, dynamic, warless. They did not want to remember the bombs that had dudded out, the crash and burn, the cellblocks they had been locked into, or the species of abyss they had seen in the dark.
Instead, they talked about the Vickers Vimy. A nippy little thing.

I didn’t expect to like this story, based on the true account of the first two men to cross the Atlantic, from Newfoundland to Ireland, by plane (“but what about Lindbergh,” I kept thinking – aha, he was the first to cross solo, but these guys did it first). But it’s a marvelous story, suspenseful, poetic, and thoughtful. The text isn’t online, but you can listen to McCann read the story; I listened to the very end, and it’s quite nice. Total play time is about an hour.

It starts with a page of backstory, nicely bracketed by the introduction of the plane, the Vickers Vimy. Alcock and Brown were soldiers in WWI, both fliers, both POWs. As you can tell from the above quote, they’re ready to move on, and this begins a swords-into-plowshares theme that runs steadily through the piece. I typically underline and bracket passages that seem important as I’m reading, and with this story, for all the suspense of the flight itself, most of what I bracketed was similar to the above, such as:

It is that time of the century when the idea of a gentleman has almost become myth. The Great War has concussed the world. The unbearable news of sixteen million deaths has rolled off the huge metal newspaper drums. Europe is a crucible of bones.


The bomb bays have been replaced by extra petrol tanks. That’s what pleases Brown the most. They are using the bomber in a brand-new way: taking the war out of the plane, stripping the thing of its penchant for carnage.

The story succeeds in other dimensions as well. The scene of their take-off, about a half-page, is positively gripping – and that’s just the take-off. The discomfort they endured – extreme cold, confinement in a single seat – is related effectively, without feeling oppressive (I have a feeling I might’ve needed a blanket and hot-water bottle had Jim Shepherd written this, and while some may see that as a slight flaw, I’m perfectly happy with the way it turned out). The landing in Ireland is hair-raising, funny, and poetic, all at the same time.

The two men are portrayed as individuals, with Alcock, the pilot, most interested in planes, and flight – “he loves women but prefers engines,” and Brown, the taciturn navigator, more of a numbers man. In his Book Bench interview, McCann relates the difference to:

…the contemporary condition of the novelist. Are you the navigator or the pilot? Do you chart possible routes or do you force the movement across an unknown space?

There’s one thread that seems unnecessary and neglected: a woman reporter and her daughter see the plane take off. Turns out this is part of a novel-in-progress (McCann also discusses this at length) about visits to Ireland by Frederick Douglass in 1845 and George Mitchell towards the end of the last millennium; this piece falls in between and links them together. The reporter is more important to the novel than to this particular section.

That’s the trouble with novel excerpts: they just aren’t short stories.

There’s also an exchange I find puzzling: shortly after takeoff, over St. John’s Bay, Alcock comments that he can’t swim:

Brown is momentarily taken aback – the thought of ditching at sea, of floating for a moment on a wooden strut, clinging to the rolling tanks. But surely Alcock swam to safety after he was shot down over Suvla Bay? All those years ago now. No, not years. Just months ago. It is odd to Brown, very odd, that not so long ago a bullet pierced his thigh and now, today, he is carrying a fragment of that bullet over the Atlantic toward a marriage, a second chance….Alcock can’t swim? Surely that’s not true. Perhaps he, too, should tell the truth. Never too late.
Brown leans down into the mouthpiece of the phone, decides against it.

There’s a reference to this again later, during a particularly treacherous moment of the flight. Is Brown really worried because he truly can’t swim, and he assumes Alcock is joking? Why would that be such a terrible secret? If it’s that important, haven’t they discussed it prior to this? Or is there another truth, one we don’t discover in this story, one that’s revealed later in the novel?

The novel isn’t even finished yet, so I guess I’ll have to wait a few years to find out. But the piece worked, even if it isn’t really a short story.

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