“Wingwalkers” is 2021 “Georgia Author of the Year” Taylor Brown’s atmospheric work of historical fiction following two barnstormers across the Southern states as they soar toward an encounter with esteemed author William Faulkner. Brown, inspired by the real-life experience Faulkner had with an aviator couple at the 1934 Mardi Gras in New Orleans, inflates this meeting into a vivid dual narrative that delves into the ethos of adventure and survival in the Depression-era South.
Drawing on the historical occurrences of the pandemic of 1918, Prohibition and the Great War, Brown’s narrative begins in 1908 with a boy named Billy who desperately wants to fly. He builds an airplane out of beanpoles and wrapping paper and propels it off a bluff. Although not airborne for long, the experience launches his lifelong obsession with aviation.
Ten years later, William “Billy” Falkner is rejected by the U.S. military due to his small stature. He cons his way into the Royal Air Force — where they add the U to Faulkner and forever set him apart from his American kin. Returning home wounded but proud, he’s sneered at while parading around his hometown of Oxford, Mississippi, in his Royal Flying Corps uniform. But Faulkner’s bravado is hiding a secret; he never learned how to fly.
Meanwhile, off the Georgia coast in 1933, Capt. Zeno Marigold and his beautiful young wife, Della the Daring Devilette, are performing fantastic feats of aviation bravery. Spinning and rolling their Curtiss Flying Jenny through the sky, dipping and diving toward the eager faces of hardworking townsfolk gathered below, Della steps out onto “the right wing, one hand on the banshee wire, the land a patchwork of green one thousand feet below. The wind skirled through the struts and guys, the sky itself threatening to rip her from this audacious contraption of wood and fabric and wire that dared its power.”
Clad in a silver lamé jumpsuit showcasing her curves, Della dances across the wings and maneuvers under the plane to hang upside down as Zeno pilots them across the sky. Throwing herself into her fear, Della knows her performance needs to be heart-stopping enough to inspire the audience to part with their precious pennies as the country teeters on the brink of economic despair.
As Della sails through the air, she’s fighting against far more than the Earth’s gravitational pull. She’s running from the sense of destiny that defined her past, doing all she can to escape the ruin experienced by her parents. Determined not to become “a creature crumpled beneath the world’s weight” — her mother perished during the influenza epidemic in 1919 and her father went broke in the 1929 stock market crash — Della takes off with flying ace Zeno Marigold in pursuit of passion and excitement.
In Zeno, Brown has fashioned a character modeled after Faulkner’s real-life propensity to craft intelligent personalities who conceal their smarts behind simplicity. A “double ace” of the Great War, self-proclaimed “Gypsy” and the prodigy of a mythology scholar, Zeno, like Della, is fleeing his past. He’s an unapologetic rolling stone with a heart of gold who distracts from his war trauma by living fast and flying hard. With his loyal terrier, Sark, by his side, and his moonshine-swigging, profanity-spewing wife Della snuggled against him under the Jenny’s wing every night, Zeno can keep moving forward. Most of the time.
The daredevils perform their way across the South toward New Orleans for a Mardi Gras air show. Now a famous writer who is still obsessed with flying, Faulkner, too, is drawn to the city of “absinthe alleys and bone-laden levees, where madness lurks like smoke.” It is in New Orleans where their fates collide as the two narratives meet.
Along the way, Brown assembles scenes from Faulkner’s life that could have inspired his real-life work. In Brown’s world, Faulkner’s 1929 debut novel “Soldier’s Pay” is the war experience Faulkner bragged about but was an untrue embellishment. And it features the romantic aftermath he wished for but didn’t have. From poetry to novels to movie scripts, Brown imagines the scenarios Faulkner braved to compose his stories while staying true to documented biographical tidbits.
As much as Brown’s narrative is about the parallel experiences of Faulkner and the daredevils, an equally prominent character in this novel is the South itself. Brown’s mise-en-scène is vibrant and detailed. He doesn’t just describe the terrain, but interweaves the history of the region into his depictions with visual passages, like this: They rode west along U.S. 90, the Old Spanish Trail. Conquistadors had blazed this sweeping canyon through the land, cutting a swath through white ridges of scrub pine. The endless armies of softwoods, their trunks arrow-straight, sprang from green explosions of palmetto, the understory sliced here or there with pale jags of game trails. Here were the paths of tusked hogs, whose ancestors rode huddled in the bellies of Spanish galleons, and the gray flicker of whitetail deer, light as vapor.”
These four characters — Faulkner, Della, Zeno and the South — guide the reader through an action-packed aerial journey to another place in time. “Wingwalkers” rebirths an era of untethered uncertainty, a time when men drank their secrets and bet on bravery for their supper, a time when literary legends were documenting the shifting tides of American consciousness while making their own mark on history. By weaving Faulkner’s facts into his imaginative fiction, Brown has created a world where, despite the bevy of national hardships, people remain true to the forces that drive them inside.
by Taylor Brown
St. Martin’s Press
320 pages, $27.99
About the Author