Reviewed by Magdalena Ball
God of Speed
By Luke Davies
Allen & Unwin
April 2008, Paperback, 286pp, April 2008, $32.95, ISBN 978-1-74114-350-8
Luke Davies is the sort of writer that skips past the surface of his subjects, moving deeper into that underlying subconscious place of pain and fear. His latest novel takes on the over-wrought subject of Howard Hughes. In his heyday, Hughes was America’s biggest 20th century icon, still believed by many to be one of the greatest geniuses that America ever had.
His impact on the world was huge and varied, touching on the movie industry and Hollywood, aviation, engineering, biomedical research, and even espionage and warfare. His life has been the subject of numerous films, books, and studies, not only for his accomplishments, but also because of the extraordinary split between his early life when he is visible everywhere, and his later life, when his is almost entirely invisible.
Taking on Hughes’ life is no small task for a novelist, especially for a writer so used to working in the micro sphere of poetry. Davies is up to it. His portrait remains something entirely new – a fiction that takes on the contours of Hughes’ life, but which goes deeper into the heart of this invented man to find everyman.
The book opens just prior to the “final decline.” It’s June 1973, where a 68-year-old Hughes prepares to fly again after 13 years of reclusive dormancy. The book stays at that point, tracking Hughes’ sleepless, drug-ridden thoughts through the night as he lies, waiting for his friend, confidante and ultimately biographer, Jack Real, to wake and accompany him on his flights.
After those flights, Hughes fractured his hip and remained bedridden from that point until his death three years later. In his thoughts — feverish and strange — he flies through his life reflecting, refracting, and moving through those moments in such an intimate, personal way that the reader almost comes to understand him.
It’s not all warm. Davies’ Hughes is self-centred, moving through sex and drugs with a hunger that is as ugly as it is damaging. The name dropping is almost irritating from the intensity of his relationship with Katherine Hepburn, through Ava Gardner, Billie Dove, Ginger Rogers, Bette Davis, Lana Turner, Faith Domergue, and Susan Hayward – all treated with a hungry misogyny that ended up being a kind of laundry list of famous legs, vaginas, and skin, devoid of the person within the body parts.
Hughes’ hunger can’t be satisfied by these women, who he catalogues by the type of sex he could have with them, anymore than it could by the drugs he later used in the same way. Instead of Ginger, Bette, and Lana, there was Emperin, Valium, and Ritalin replacing that hot, fast hit of success, of a blockbuster completed, the roar of an engine beneath the legs, of making huge amounts of money:
You get the thing you want, but hardly. Hardly have you breathed your way into the next thought than the last thought fills you with yearning and is gone. To say nothing of all this constriction. (87)
Placed in the uncomfortable role of Hughes’ confidante, the reader is made to understand this fictional Hughes, from his earliest memories of his mother’s germ fears, to his latest ones of infirmary and addiction. There is an honesty here that is painful, horrible at times, but also, and mainly because of Davies’ poetic skill, beautiful:
Now, so many decades later, I like the flooding again, that sense of being liquid inside all this dryness, which is only apparent dryness, of course. The way Emperin glides, and flows. The way at times, after an injection, I could swear not that I am in but that I have in face become a stream, rippling over the pebbles as I flow. Or the way Valium dulls the roaring of the sky, and makes the vultures pigeons.(26)
The grand scale of Hughes’ life is all on the outside. On the inside, where the reader sits at a nightmare ridden bedside, Hughes is still that little boy, afraid of germs, and unable to breathe in, but we can still hear the outside world. Despite the small-scale scene, Davies manages to provide the big picture of Hughes’ world. We have his real neurotic memos that give us a sense of how he might be presenting to those around him.
These are disturbing instructions on how many Kleenexes should be used to open the door of his cabinet, or how to “prevent the backflow of germs” in sending flowers on the death of Bob Gross, who ran Lockheed. The way in which Davies handles the relationship between inner world and outer; between Hughes’ schemes and his obsessive-compulsive implosion without ever leaving his setting of a single night, and single bed, is masterful.
Though Davies’ Hughes isn’t exactly a likable character, the intimacy is so striking and the intensity of the portrait so great that Hughes becomes someone entirely familiar. Not so much the grand aviator with all the superlatives of his status: richest, fastest, most inventive, but instead, a man like any other, pursued by demons and running hard to find a way to live through them. He succeeds and he fails, as indeed, we all do on one level or another. This is a remarkable fusion of prose and poetry, well worth reading, regardless of whether or not the subject matter is of interest to you.