In the 1930s, daredevil pilot Zeno Marigold and his equally fearless wife, Della, barnstorm around rural Georgia for nickels and dimes in their aging, balky Curtis Jenny biplane. Zeno, former World War I air ace, has no particular goals except to see how long he can cheat death. Della, who rides the wing of the Jenny as a stunt, dreams of going to Hollywood and of living fully, not just defying the odds. During their wanderings, they run across William Faulkner, of whom they’ve never heard, but whose great unfulfilled wish was to fly in the late war. The novel works up to this meeting, based on a real event in Faulkner’s life.
The narrative, constructed of short chapters alternating Faulkner’s youth and adulthood with the barnstormers’ travails, offers poignant or amusing vignettes but fails to build to a cohesive, engrossing story. The chapters involving Della and Zeno repeat their conflict with little or no variation; he won’t change, while she longs for California and fears he’ll crash the Jenny one day. The Faulkner sections feel more significant, centering on his family, especially his beloved brothers. But even there, the material lacks a unifying drama or sense of importance.
Brown must rank among the most gifted prose stylists around. But even his exquisite language struggles to keep his story aloft. As for the characters, Zeno’s constant need to test his strength and wits wears thin after a while, and what, exactly, Della thinks she can achieve in Hollywood never becomes clear.
I’m surprised that the author of Fallen Land and Gods of Howl Mountain, both of which have riveting plots, has fashioned Wingwalkers, whose premise and narrative might have fit a short story better than a novel, and whose ending feels anticlimactic.