A Review of Taylor Brown’s “Wingwalkers”
Writing That Soars to New Heights
I’ve fallen into reading the most recent books of Taylor Brown — a writer in the Southern Gothic tradition à la William Faulkner. His previous two novels, Gods of Howl Mountain and Pride of Eden, were pleasant enough but felt merely average — while finely written, they lacked a certain spark to make the purple prose fly off the page. Well, with Brown’s latest novel, Wingwalkers, he rectifies that problem because here he’s writing about a truly thrilling subject matter: barnstormers of the Dirty ’30s. This is a novel that takes to the air and flies, being almost two novels in one. One part of the tale is a fictional biography of Brown’s idol, Faulkner, as he grows up and gets interested in flight, going so far as to even make a plane of his own out of newspaper that crashes and burns in his family’s backyard. (A true story, it would turn out — and all of the Faulkner chapters are a fictional telling of real-life events, as outlandish as some of them may seem. Wikipedia bears this out.) The other half of the novel is about a romantic couple who tour the southern states of the U.S. during the early 1930s, struggling to make ends meet as they perform aerial stunts such as wing-walking for gathered crowds that they happen upon. Faulkner and the pair — Zeno and Della — eventually have a chance encounter towards the novel’s end at Mardi Gras in New Orleans in 1934. That part being real, I’m not sure of.
In any event, the novel is tightly wound with thrilling escapes from danger, such as bush fires while camping and mock air battles. If anything, this novel illustrates just how dangerous stunt flying was in the early days of flight, with many of the participants getting killed in crashes, particularly in the last quarter of the book — which I hope is no spoiler. The novel is also beautiful in its poetic prose, with images of a Deep South that was down on its luck, particularly during this period as it had a scarcity of resources. It’s Brown’s first novel that I’ve read that you can accurately call a page-turner. What’s more, this is the novel that Malcolm Brooks’ Cloudmaker, which is about amateur aviation during roughly the same period, should have been. Where Cloudmaker was a slog through all of its jargon and tedious writing, Wingwalkers has hardly a dull moment. Well, okay, that’s a bit of a stretch because Wingwalkers’ mid-section does sag a bit.
Part of the reason Wingwalkers escapes being a five-star book and is merely a very good one is that the Della and Zeno angle quickly gets repetitious. They fly from town to town looking for work, meet people, and generally have altercations with them. Rinse and repeat. I suppose that’s the reason they’re considered gypsies in the book, but it’s as though Brown was padding out the novel just so he could shoehorn in more chapters about the life of William Faulkner. And, to be honest, while the Faulkner bits are interesting, they seem episodic. The life story of Faulkner is told chronologically but sometimes skips a few years, meaning that if you’re looking for something of a straight and full biography of the writer, you might want to look elsewhere. Brown namechecks a lot of early Faulkner novels, but I found it strange that one of his most famous, As I Lay Dying (1930), is absent entirely from mention. Perhaps Brown was trying to shine a light on some of Faulkner’s lesser-known works, but it does feel that pieces of the puzzle are missing here.
But, look, no novel is perfect. I’m willing to give higher marks to Wingwalkers than I did Gods of Howl Mountain or Pride of Eden simply because it is the better book. Brown seems to progressively improve from book to book, so I must say that I look forward to his next one. Still, what we have here is a consummate tale of action and adventure that will have your heart leaping in your throat from time to time. The story is fascinating and easy to follow and it is rich in imagery and evokes Great Depression-era America, particularly the South. Even if the tale can be said to go around in circles every now and then, this is a deeply exciting yarn. If anything, this novel will whet your appetite to read more Faulkner (I’ve only read one of his books, and it is the title already previously mentioned) if not head out to the next vintage airshow that rolls into town.
Wingwalkers is a captivating book, and it works as both a history of one of the world’s greatest writers of all time and as a historical look back at men (and women) and their flying machines of yore. Brown has outdone himself here and has unshackled himself from convoluted narratives. In all, Wingwalkers is probably going to be the novel that breaks him to a much wider audience, supply chain issues be damned, since it’s a marvelous read and you could do no worse than seek a copy for yourself to see what the fuss is all about. This is nearly top-notch stuff from a budding writer and student of the Southern Gothic written tradition and would make its influencer quite proud. Wingwalkers is a searing tale of danger in the skies and sometimes on the ground and shows that you can write literary fiction that excites and leaps off the page while still paying attention to one’s writing craft. In short, Brown has left an imprint with this work, and Wingwalkers is likely his first (and hopefully not the last) truly exciting work that he has produced, at least according to my memory. Go read it and find out for yourself!
Taylor Brown’s Wingwalkers will be published by St. Martin’s Press on April 19, 2022.
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You may also be interested in the following reviews: Taylor Brown’s Gods of Howl Mountain and Taylor Brown’s Pride of Eden.
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