by Len Lear
I have seen rave reviews in my time for recently published books, of course, but I cannot remember a more unanimously enthusiastic, almost hagiographic reception for any novel than for Mt. Airy author Daniel Torday’s “The Last Flight of Poxl West,” released in mid-March of this year by St. Martin’s Press. Two years ago I read Torday’s brilliant novella, “The Sensualist,” which won the 2012 National Jewish Book Award for debut fiction, but “The Last Flight” is apparently ascending out of sight into the literary stratosphere.
Torday’s stories and essays have appeared in Esquire, The New York Times and The Paris Review Daily, among others. A former editor at Esquire, Torday is Director of Creative Writing at Bryn Mawr College.
In “Last Flight,” Torday’s protagonist, Poxl West, fled the Nazis’ onslaught in Czechoslovakia leading up to World War II. He escaped their clutches again in Holland. He pulled Londoners from the Blitz’s rubble and joins the Royal Air Force, where he rains fire on Germany. West’s teenage nephew, Eli Goldstein, reveres him as a brave, singular, Jewish war hero, but later he has to face irreconcilable facts about the war he’s romanticized and the vision of the man he’s held so dear.
If you Google the novel’s title, you will literally find dozens of reverential critical reviews of the book. Here are two blurbs that are typical: “’The Last Flight’…is a profound and timely meditation on the desire for justice, retribution and redemption. This book is unputdownable, wise and unbelievably generous. Its ending left me speechless.”— Karen Russell, Philadelphia author of Swamplandia!, a 2011 Pulitzer Prize finalist.
“Expertly crafted…lyrical prose, superb Rothian sentences that glide over the page as smoothly as a Spitfire across a cloudless sky…an utterly accomplished novel. Daniel Torday is a writer, one with real talent and heart.”— Teddy Wayne, The New York Times Book Review (cover review)
Torday, 37, who lives in Mt. Airy with his wife Erin, and their daughters Abigail, 6, and Delia, 2, was raised around Boston until the family moved to Baltimore when he was 14. His childhood homes were filled with books his father, a first-generation American from Hungary and a research biologist, would read. Torday attended Kenyon College, where he majored in English and minored in philosophy. Here is part of the interview we conducted with him last week:
Is Poxl based on a real person?
Well, this novel is very much a fiction and a product of my imagination. But I think every fictional character has some roots in the folks we encounter in our days. The spark for the book itself came from some time I spent with my grandmother’s Czech first cousin, Honza North, who was living in London at the time (he has sadly since passed) and who shared some affinities with Poxl. He’d grown up north of Prague, moved to Rotterdam and then London, where he trained for the RAF. I also spent time with a number of the other members of that generation from my family and read a ton of self-published memoirs.
Did you visit the Czech Republic to do research?
I did! I’d been to Prague a couple times as a kid, but between leaving a job working as a magazine editor and heading to grad school up in Syracuse, I took a couple of months to travel across Eastern Europe — from Prague north to Leitmeritz, down to Cesky Krumlov and on to Vienna, through Budapest and much of Hungary, across Romania and down to Bulgaria, then back to Rotterdam and London.
How long did it take you to write “Last Flight”?
The actual writing of the book was probably seven or eight years, and then after selling it, there’s the inevitable almost two years of editing, production, waiting for the book to launch. So it’s been nearly a decade since I got the first (decidedly ugly and now jettisoned!) pages of the book down. But with a project of this size, a lot of that time is accounted for by the fallow periods, the periods after a lot of prose is down and you’re a little stuck on what it needs. So I actually wrote my first book, the novella “The Sensualist,” in between starting “Poxl” and finishing it. I’ve always got a lot of projects going at once—stories, essays and reviews, while a novel gestates. Not efficient, but it seems to work!
Is it fair to call the book an examination of the nature of heroism?
That’s a great question! I think it’s fair basically to call the book anything that feels apt after reading it, if that doesn’t sound somehow too evasive. I wish I had the kind of mind that seized on one idea, one theme and stuck with it. Maybe I’d be rich or a beat reporter. But my mind and my sentences seem to be like some weird prism shooting off light in a thousand directions at once. It’s really only by settling into characters and setting them in space and time that it gets confined, cohesive. Which is to say some question of how we view our heroes…is surely a big part of what I was thinking about while writing — along with like 34 other things that interested me in the decade it took to finish.
How do you feel about the remarkable critical reaction to the book?
Well it’s sweet of you to view it that way! It’s been very flattering, of course…to have the paper that people still tend to view as the one of record (New York Times) take the book on with such enthusiasm is a shock and a tangible boost. You really never know how a book is going to go over; there’s so much luck involved in its even being written about at all. It’ll probably be years before I quite take in the response.
Can you say what your next novel will be about?
It’s in part an attempt to dramatize the conflict between the Millennial Generation and the Baby Boomers…it’s very loosely a retelling of Julius Caesar, and we’ll just see. As I say, I always have a hard time focusing, so who knows? By the time I’m done, maybe it’ll be about elephant trainers in Myanmar or a sad woman sitting alone in a room somewhere. But for now, Millennials and Boomers.