Wednesday, July 8, 2015
Summer Reading: No Highway by Nevil Shute
This time around, the author was Nevil Shute, the British engineer whose writing heyday was the mid-20th century. Often set in some sort of aeronautical milieu, his novels feature hardworking men and women just doing their jobs, albeit in unusual and often high-stakes circumstances, and champion the inherent dignity of all people. In some ways, he creates figures in aerial melodrama that John Lecarre is said to use in the spy genre: the civil servant as hero. In this aspect, Shute joins two of my other top favorite authors: Ernest K. Gann (another flyer) and the great Arthur C. Clarke. None of these writers have larger-than-life protagonists; all of them make the quotidian dramatic, the commonplace critical, and the ordinary exciting. Maybe it's my working-class background, but I it's okay with me if the hero is occasionally someone who clocks in rather than a Lone Wolf or a Great Detective.
My latest Shute redux was No Highway, set in postwar England. A harried bureaucrat and an asocial researcher stumble on a possible engineering flaw in a new ariliner that might endanger the lives of travelers; they persevere through challenges both physical and political to have the cumbersome apparatus of government air safety respond to the threat. The plot moves apace and grows more complex, reaching out to embrace as key figures a Hollywood actress and a dead Russian ambassador as well as a stewardess and a dead British pilot. Every element of the story glows with verisimilitude and detail, from passive-aggressive inter-agency wrangling and mundane English villages to the graciousness of early transatlantic flight and the wilderness that was Newfoundland in the 1940s.
And that's another strong draw to return to Shute: his straightforward, detailed prose gives the reader a glimpse of the way life was in an era that I only caught the tailwind of as a boy. It was a time before reliable long-distance calls, much less mobile phones; when information did not fly around the world in seconds and people sometimes went home for their lunch hour; when captains of industry still actually worked in their industries and everyone smoked in their office. Reading a Nevil Shute novel is like visiting a different world and getting a guided tour.
Call it a guilty pleasure; call it comfort food for thought, or call it a waste of time. I have a list of books I need to get to, but I think this summer I'll re-read some more Nevil Shute. And maybe some Gann and Clarke, too.