Fic­tion

The Last Flight of Poxl West: A Novel

By – November 18, 2014

In his ambi­tious and mov­ing first nov­el, Daniel Tor­day (whose novel­la The Sensual­ist won the 2012 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.

Don­ald Weber is a pro­fes­sor of Eng­lish at Mount Holyoke Col­lege, and the author of Haunt­ed in the New World: Jew­ish Amer­i­can Cul­ture from Cahan to The Gold­bergs (Indi­ana Uni­ver­si­ty Press, 2005).