The Last Flight of Poxl West: A Novel

St. Martin's Press  2015

 

In his ambitious and moving first novel, Daniel Torday (whose novella The Sensual­ist (2012) received the National Jewish Book Award for debut fiction) sets two Jewish stories in rich contrapuntal relation. The first is told by an adult Eli Goldstein, looking back on his teenage self, coming of age in the Boston suburbs of the 1980s on the threshold of Jewish consciousness, and how he learned about the tragic story of Jewish life in Eastern Europe during World War II. That fraught narrative is told by his beloved Uncle Poxl, in a best-selling memoir, about his experience during the War as an émigré pilot for the Brit­ish Royal Air Force, flying bombing missions over Nazi Germany.

The novel shifts between Eli’s youthful encounters with his charismatic uncle, whose story resonates for the nephew with the authority of Jewish history and memory, and long sections of Poxl’s actual “narra­tive,” which upon publication made him an overnight literary sensation. While Poxl is reviewed everywhere and celebrated as a newly discovered Jewish witness to the War in the tradition of Primo Levi and Elie Wiesel, the proud nephew waits for his signed copy. Unaccountably, the longed-for volume never arrives. There is, it turns out, something mysterious about Uncle Poxl. Torday’s achieve­ment is to make the enigmatic, unforgettable Uncle and his fascinating war story come alive.

In Torday’s vivid portrait, Uncle Poxl emerges as a character akin to one of Bellow’s zany yet deeply serious “reality instructors,” like Dr. Tamkin in Seize the Day (1956), a luft­mensch (literally, in this case Poxl is indeed an “air-man”) appearing and disappearing out of nowhere: “Uncle Poxl had one of those pointy red Ashkenazi faces whose very shape carries confidence and import. The bridge of his nose was so thin it simply faded into his high red brow. Atop his head he wore a trademark porkpie hat, the brown felt of which was always brushed.”

Poxl instructs his receptive nephew (he calls Eli his “constant listener”) in how to appreciate high culture in all its forms and modes, as well as to relish ice cream sundaes from Cabot’s creamery. Above all, he teaches his nephew through his own life story. As a teenager at the threshold of the War and the deportation of the Jews, Poxl escaped from his native Prague and ended up in London, where he joined the RAF and flew bombing missions over Germany. In this way Poxl enacts a form of Jewish revenge on the Nazis. In the process we’re told that Poxl “had wrested his fate from the inevitable bearing down of history.” Thus Uncle Poxl embodies Jewish memory itself; his “war story” seeps into Eli’s searching Jewish soul. “It was as if he was crafting his great account before my eyes,” an older Eli reflects later, “and I don’t know that I’ve been so close to history since.”

The longer and more riveting sections of Torday’s novel are presented as Poxl’s own youthful and later adult wartime memoirs, which recount his journey East to West, through Rotterdam and eventually to London. For all its evocation of world-shaking events—which include a rendering of the saturated Nazi bombing of London and vivid accounts of RAF flights over Germany—Poxl’s personal narrative remains, ultimately, an inti­mate story of erotic awakening, betrayal, and flight—Poxl’s habit, nourished by centuries of Jewish experience, of self-exile.

Poxl’s first betrayal involves his beautiful red-haired mother, who, we learn, posed naked for the sexually provocative Austrian artist Egon Schiele (here Torday’s attempt to account for Poxl’s psycho-sexual pathol­ogy seems a bit far-fetched); the traumatic discovery of his mother and Schiele—more or less imitating one of his now-famous explicit drawings in the flesh—marks the young Poxl with filial trauma.

Only by the end of Poxl’s memoir, which is also the end of The Last Flight of Poxl West, do we understand that Poxl’s memoir is, ultimately, a love story set against and shaped by personal and historical trauma. In a moving concluding image, Poxl seeks redemption with a former lover who is herself scarred—literal­ly—by history. Only through such a loving act, it seems, can Poxl begin to soothe the scars of Jewish experience, salve the bodily traumas inflicted by race hatred. Indeed, this loving gesture turns out to be Uncle Poxl’s legacy, as a survivor, both for his faith-keeping nephew, and for us, his constant, attentive readers, absorbed by his amazing story.

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Reading Group Guide

JBC Book Clubs has created a book club kit for The Last Flight of Poxl West that includes discussion questions, historical information, recommended reads, and recipes. Download your copy here. 

Meet Sami Rohr Prize Finalist Daniel Torday

Jewish Book Council is proud to introduce readers to the five emerging fiction authors named as finalists for the 2017 Sami Rohr Prize for Jewish Literature. Today, we invite you to learn more about Daniel Torday and his book, The Last Flight of Poxl West, a novel about a teenager and his relationship with his uncle, a World War II hero of the Royal Air Force.

A warm congratulations to Daniel and the other four finalists: Paul Goldberg, Idra Novey, Adam Ehrlich Sachs, and Rebecca Schiff. Join Jewish Book Council on May 3, 2017 at The Jewish Museum for a discussion with the authors and announcement of the recipient of the $100,000 Sami Rohr Prize for Jewish Literature! Register for free tickets here »

What're some of the most challenging things about writing fiction?

All of it! The more time you spend writing, the more you understand all the things that somehow won’t work in a novel. Flannery O’Connor said it best: “You can get away with anything you can get away with as a writer, but nobody’s ever gotten away with much.”

What or who has been your inspiration for writing fiction?

Harold Brodkey. Joan Didion. The Wire. Art Spiegelman. Marilynne Robinson, the paintings of Egon Schiele. Annie Dillard. Albert Goldbarth. Leonard Cohen, and Bob Dylan.

Who is your intended audience?

I’d like to think I write for the reader who loves to read as much as I do! I’m as happy re-reading Saul Bellow’s short stories, or some big thousand-page biography by Robert Caro, as I am watching a baseball game.

Are you working on anything new right now?

I’m trying to put the finishing touches on a new novel. It’s tentatively called BOOMER1. Though yesterday it was tentatively called something else so who knows. It’s about a guy in his early thirties who quits New York, moves into his parents’ basement in suburban Baltimore and tries to foment a revolution, sparking millennials to force baby boomers to quit their jobs.

What are you reading now?

Michel Houellebecq’s The Elementary Particles. Vivian Gornick’s little book on Emma Goldman, Revolution as a Way of Life. Gershom Scholem’s Sabbatai Sevi biography. Ron Chernow’s Washington: A Life.

Top 5 favorite books

Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy

Goodbye, Columbus by Saul Bellow

Frog and Toad are Friends by Arnold Lobel

Housekeeping by Marilynne Robinson

Revolutionary Road by Richard Yates

When did you decide to be a writer? Where were you?

Oh, I always wanted to be a writer. At my bar mitzvah, a succession of cousins and uncles suggested I would make a great lawyer. Each, a lawyer himself. I spent every September in my twenties buying LSAT prep books on Amazon, and every October not reading them. Luckily this writing/teaching thing seems to be working out, but there’s always the Fall 2017 LSAT….

What is the mountaintop for you — how do you define success?

I was so excited when I found out Michiko Kakutani was reviewing The Last Flight of Poxl West in the Times. I (embarrassingly) wrote everyone I knew to tell them. My old college friend, John Green, who has sold literally tens of millions of copies of his books, wrote back to say something like, “That’s cool, but you know what the best is? Just one person, somewhere, truly engaged with your work.” So, that.

How do you write—what is your private modus operandi? What talismans, rituals, props do you use to assist you?

I forget who but someone smarter than me said something along the lines of “the art of writing is the meeting of the seat of the pants with the seat of the chair.” So I try to be disciplined: sitting front of the computer for three hours a day, all week long, when I’m at work. A whole lot of it’s going to get thrown out, anyway.

What do you want readers to get out of your book?

I think the dream is for a reader who feels they see the world a little more clearly, in a little more detail, and a little more generously, after closing every novel they read. So if they read me, I’m just happy to know that’s what they’re doing when they do it.

Daniel Torday is the Director of Creative Writing at Bryn Mawr College. An author and former editor at Esquire magazine, Torday currently serves as an editor at The Kenyon Review. His short stories and essays have appeared in Esquire, Glimmer Train, Harper Perennial's Fifty-Two Stories, Harvard Review, The New York Times, and The Kenyon Review. Torday's novella The Sensualist won the 2012 National Jewish Book Award for debut fiction; The Last Flight of Poxl West received the 2015 National Jewish Book Award for Fiction.

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