It can be quite tricky, even futile, to criticize a novel when its author openly acknowledges its imperfections. In the opening pages of Daniel Torday’s “The Last Flight of Poxl West,” fifteen-year-old Eli stumbles upon a New York Times Book Review critique of “Skylock,” his uncle’s memoir, which happens to comprise the majority of Torday’s own book. The reviewer complains that “Skylock” contains “some odd formalities of language” and “its second half is stronger than its first.” A cheeky, meta-fictional means of explaining away the novel’s faults? Perhaps. It would be a risky move if “The Last Flight” proved lackluster; fortunately, despite the fictional critic’s astute observations, Torday’s breathtaking, vivid descriptions of war-torn Europe and undeniable storytelling skills render his debut mesmerizing. Though the book hits a few patches of rough air early in the story, “The Last Flight of Poxl West” ultimately soars: it’s a masterfully crafted, wise examination of the enduring ache of lost love, the veracity of memory, and the disparity between the stories one wants to hear and those one needs.
“The Last Flight” revolves around Eli Goldstein, a baseball-loving Jewish teenager who idolizes his surrogate uncle, Poxl West (né Leopold Weisberg). With Eli’s encouragement, West pens and publishes “Skylock,” a memoir detailing his sensational adventures in the midst of World War II, including fighting for the Allies as an RAF bomber and his ongoing affair with a Dutch prostitute. But the memoir’s surprise success elicits rumors of possibly fabricated material, challenging Eli’s perception of Poxl, heroism, and the importance of truth. The narrative, which shifts between excerpts from “Skylock” and Eli’s memories of his uncle’s fall from grace, is ambitious for a first-time novelist and ultimately somewhat peripheral to the novel. While Torday’s ability to recount the same events from diametrically opposite viewpoints is impressive, it does little to enhance the emotional and intellectual heft provided by the already powerful happenings within “The Last Flight.”
Choosing to tell the story from two distinct perspectives necessitates the creation of two unique voices, generations apart. Here Torday generally succeeds, particularly with the plucky Eli. Though over three-fourths of the novel is dedicated to Poxl’s journey, Torday manages to fit in a full transformative arc for his young protagonist. Eli’s evolution from naive child tirelessly devoted to his uncle to scrutinizing adult probably reads so realistically because decades ago, Torday was Eli—a teenage Jewish-American seeking comfort in baseball stars and older heroes. He was not, however, an elderly, former RAF pilot who may or may have lied about his past, which makes Poxl slightly more difficult to flesh out. Torday perfectly captures the heightened, occasionally awkward phrasing of those learning English as a second language, but Poxl’s decisions sometimes fail to align with his clearly stated rationale, lessening the believability of his character.
While Torday’s sweeping vision of the intertwined narrative occasionally falters, his prodigious talents as an author compensate for the novel’s structural faults. Having amassed both critical acclaim for stories in the short fiction collective Glimmer Train and a National Jewish Book Award for his novella “The Sensualist,” Torday has already begun to prove himself a literary force. In finally penning a novel, he’s allotted himself more space to plumb the depths of his creativity, and the results are astounding. Torday possesses an uncanny, painterly eye for detail; his prose is lucid, elegant, and, more often than not, tantamount to pure poetry. Midway through his time fighting in the war, Poxl notes, “I had come to see my destiny as a line stitched in a glove: bending and bobbing above and below leather—but always by design”; years later, these events trail him “like the sweet whiff of cherry tobacco from a pipe smoker’s coat.” Torday’s insistence on transforming even the most mundane of events or ideas into visually resplendent feasts, each word meticulously chosen to improve the aural aesthetic of a line, prevents "The Last Flight" from wavering even during unusually lengthy lulls in action.
Luckily, Torday didn’t devote his time solely to constructing a plethora of gorgeous metaphors; it’s clear from the precision of his details that the author also researched the look and energy of a World War II-era Europe. From Poxl’s life in the idyllic Czechoslovakian countryside to his time in bustling Amsterdam, from driving an ambulance through the burning streets of London to piloting an RAF bomber through the clouds of Germany, Torday ostensibly covers every major facet of life during the war. Herein, however, lies the fundamental problem with "The Last Flight”: he stuffs his novel with countless plot points, and so many of them go undeveloped. Torday so generously describes minute, ultimately irrelevant details—the chiseled stone of British buildings, the sunlight peeking over treetops, sheets of rain pattering against metal roofs—that he eschews developing major relationships and critical aspects of the plot. He flies through Poxl’s life faster than a Spitfire across an open sky, causing Poxl’s decisions to feel hasty or shallow. Torday’s writing is brilliant, but but in the future he needs better to determine what elements of his story truly merit such detailed accounts.
As a novel-within-a-novel, packed with two interwoven narratives, five acts, and a myriad of settings, “The Last Flight of Poxl West” is busy, a massive undertaking that would intimidate even the most established of authors. Admittedly, the novel does have a tendency to feel both incredibly detailed and rushed. But Torday’s indisputable, immense talent as a writer and storyteller manage to keep "The Last Flight" from dipping dangerously close to the haphazard. The previously mentioned, faux New York Times Book Review article ultimately deems “Skylock” unforgettable: “I don’t think I’ve been so moved by a book in recent memory,” the reviewer writes. While "The Last Flight" itself is strong, it’s Torday’s writing style—dazzling, witty, and heartfelt—that make his novel one to remember.