Drama in real life
January 15, 2009, offered us a story of extraordinary valour and miraculous survival. An Airbus A320 left New York’s La Guardia airport for North Carolina. Less than 120 seconds after it took off, it was hit by a flock of Canada geese. It lost both its engines. The pilot, Chesley B Sullenberger III, glided the plane to safety, crashlanding on the waters of the Hudson. Not one of the 150 people on board was killed.
William Langewiesche’s Fly by Wire: The Geese, the Glide, the ‘Miracle’ on the Hudson is a gripping account of this brief flight, and its remarkable landing. Langewiesche – himself a trained pilot and an international correspondent for Vanity Fair magazine – gives us a clinical, often discursive analysis of how the event unfolded, and why it did in the way it did.
Apart from Sullenberger, the book tells us, the other hero was the plane itself, whose essence is the digital fly-by-wire apparatus, a “radical, semi-robotic, European design”. As Geoff Dyer points out in his Guardian review (link): “Metaphorically speaking, Sully won the spelling bee – but was wired up to Microsoft spell check just in case. In Langewiesche’s words, the plane ‘participated actively in the survival of the passengers’.”
This is stirring stuff from Langewiesche, beady-eyed and unsentimental, and if you are a fan of aeroplanes, adventure stories or real-life, human drama, you should get this one. Oh, and here is the review from the New York Times.
Heavyweight on heavyweight
Truman Capote coined the phrase ‘non-fiction novel’ to describe how he used the technique of the novel in In Cold Blood, his book of reportage. The phrase has not only stuck, but In Cold Blood, published in 1965 and a groundbreaking and magnificent work, is too often used as the only shorthand for that technique.
Norman Mailer’s 1975 book, The Fight, ought to be one of the best non-fiction novels of the last century. With the Rumble in the Jungle in Kinshasa, the 1974 world heavyweight title fight between Muhammad Ali and George Foreman as its subject, and the fight itself its pulsing heart, Mailer weaves a dramatic, unputdownable tale of race, class, sport and unfettered individual egos in search of individual glory.
In the Observer Sport Monthly’s 2005 poll for the best sport books ever, The Fight was voted Number 2. Here is what Jason Cowley, then the award-winning magazine’s editor, had to say:
“The Fight has the complexity of a mosaic as well as a wonderful simplicity. A lot of work and considerable talent disguise the artistry of a book that can be read, quickly, as a dramatic first-hand account of one of the greatest of all sporting events of last century, and then again, more slowly, for the detail and acuity of its psychological insights and for the forceful fluency of its rhetorical, endlessly inventive style.”
The book is available in India as a Penguin Modern Classic for Rs 350. I bought my copy from Landmark in Mumbai. It should be easy enough to find. Even if you aren’t a sport fan, you should get it.