Author Joshua Ferris learns to fly

David L. Ulin
Los Angeles Times Book Critic
In a four-part series in Popular Mechanics, Joshua Ferris learns to fly

I like when writers step outside their comfort zones. Not just on the page but existentially. Writing, after all, should be an ongoing dance with our uncertainties, with all the things we cannot know.

Just ask Joshua Ferris, the National Book Award finalist whose last novel, “To Rise Again at a Decent Hour,” portrays a character disconnected, adrift in the isolating stillness of modernity. “Come back, you ghosts,” he writes there. “Don’t leave me alone with the night.”

It’s hard not to think of Ferris’ fiction while reading “Learning to Fly,” the first installment in a four-part series the author is writing for (of all places) Popular Mechanics. “I was terrified,” he begins. “I don’t mean occasionally. I mean that terror, as an emotion, as a prevailing mood, had overtaken my life.” The solution? To stare fear in the face, as it were, by taking on one of his most fundamental anxieties, fear of flying, and getting behind the controls of a plane.

“To go up in the air inside a machine,” Ferris tells us, “is a very stupid thing to do. It is also transcendentally cool and extremely practical.” Somewhere between those two polarities resides the tension that drives his piece.

For Ferris, learning to fly becomes both challenge and antidote, a reaction to his father’s death, his own impending 40th birthday, the press of mortality, of time. His decision is driven, in part, by a near catastrophe: an emergency landing in 2003 of a jet on which he was a passenger, after a “motor responsible for pressurizing the air had burned out and released smoke into the cabin.”

More than a decade later, Ferris meets his flight instructor at an airfield in New Jersey and asks, “What’s the worst thing that could happen to me?” The instructor answers: “People unfortunately die in flight training. ... I would think that would be the worst thing.”

The key, he informs us, is to think of flying as mechanical -- not a matter of magic (which is what it often feels like), but rather one of aerodynamics, maintenance. In this first installment, he introduces us to the plane, a 1966 Piper Cherokee Cruiser, which he likens to a lawnmower with wings. Nothing high tech about it, just a series of cranks and winches, and an engine that needs to be inspected before takeoff to make sure no animals have gotten in.

If there’s a lesson to be learned here, it has to do with demystification, which is the only cure for fear. It reminds me of a story a friend once told me of a reporter he knew who cured her own fear of flying by riding in the cockpit of a jet. Most of us, of course, will never have that access, but Ferris’ experience suggests another approach.

What does it mean to fly? “I had to have a little faith,” Ferris writes. “I was scared, but I had to live.”

It may be flying to which he is referring, but really, he is writing about everything.

Twitter: @davidulin

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