At a reading of his bestselling memory, Poxl West is asked if his memoir has anything new to say about the Jewish experience of World War II by a dandruffy graduate student. The question flusters the old man and infuriates his nephew (our narrator). I wanted to interject myself and say that everyone has a right to tell their story, that there are a multiplicity of stories from that era that deserve to be heard. But what if that story turns out to be less than true? Daniel Torday’s The Last Flight of Poxl West begin with the story of a boy and his much-admired war hero uncle before becoming something much more complicated.
Elijah Goldstein and Poxl take turns telling their stories. Poxl’s story is one of a Jewish Czech who managed to flee the European continent just after the Anschluß before joining the British war effort as a member of a rescue squad. Elijah is only fifteen in 1986 when Poxl’s memoir, Skylock, comes out to great acclaim. The book is the first time the young man has heard a story from World War II in which a Jewish man is not a victim. After a life time of reading Primo Levi and Elie Wiesel, Skylock is a revelation to him. He devours the tale of Poxl’s work rescuing victims of the Blitz before being accepted to the RAF as a pilot.
Elijah basks in the reflected glory from his uncle’s memoir. He resents any negative criticism of Poxl’s sometimes shaky prose and overemphasis on sex. It isn’t until five months after Skylock’s publication that it all comes crashing down. It is discovered that Poxl West’s name doesn’t appear on the crew lists for the bomber he claimed to fly on sorties over Hamburg. Elijah (and I) had to immediately question everything we’d heard and read from Poxl. How much was true and how much wasn’t?
Torday creates distinct voices for both Elijah and Poxl. Poxl’s memoir begins stiffly, as though written by a man who is not a native English speaker. But there are parts of Skylock in The Last Flight of Poxl West that have the ring of truth about them. Skylock isn’t just the story of a Jew who got a little taste of revenge on the Nazi machine; it’s also the story of a flawed man who makes huge mistakes. Poxl’s story is a failed love story more than anything else. When Poxl writes of his lost loves, the depth of emotion creates all the verisimilitude the book needs. At 15, however, Elijah is too young and inexperienced to recognize what Skylock and Poxl were trying to say to the world.
It’s funny I read this book after recently reading Cynthia Ozick’s brief rant about fraudulent Holocaust memoirs . Skylock is just the sort of lie that would infuriate her. A lie that makes readers doubt Jewish history is a dangerous one, the sort that gives Holocaust deniers ammunition. Still, Poxl’s story is mostly true—just not the parts about his war record. His losses were real. After finishing The Last Flight of Poxl West, I have to think that if Poxl hadn’t written about being a successful RAF bomber pilot, Skylock would have sunk beneath the waves like that graduate student at the reading seemed to think it should have.
I received a free copy of this ebook from NetGalley, in exchange for an honest review. It will be released 17 March 2015.
1. Cynthia Ozick, “The Rights of History and the Rights of Imagination,” in Cynthia Ozick, Quarrel & Quandary (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2000), 103-119.