Laurie Gwen Shapiro’s “The Stowaway” has the makings of a high-concept true story for the ages: Teen upstart from Queens becomes the toast of Jazz Age America by finagling a coveted spot on a storied explorer’s bid to helm the first flight over the South Pole.
The Stowaway revolves around the converging compulsions of dashing blueblood Commander Richard Evelyn Byrd, equal parts serious explorer and glory-hound, and Billy Gawronski, 17, first-generation Polish-American from the outer boroughs.
Renowned for his 1926 aerial crossing of the North Pole but beaten by Charles Lindbergh to aviation’s blue ribbon — the first transatlantic flight — and stung by doubt cast on his Arctic feat (his claimed time seems infeasibly fast), in 1928, Byrd needs a reboot. Reprising his flyover in Antarctica would seal his legend and plant Old Glory (he’d heave it out midair) on the alabaster wastes of Earth’s hardiest frontier. Abetted by PR pioneer Edward Bernays, Byrd peddles admissions to his preparations and splashes stories in the slicks to drum up interest and funds.
Meanwhile, stultified in drab Bayside and underwhelmed by his studies at Textile High, Gawronski’s imagination is inflamed by accounts of Byrd’s expedition, which offered an escape hatch from the desultory prospect of inheriting his old man’s upholstery business. He vaults into the turbid Hudson and slips aboard one of Byrd’s Antarctic-bound ships at anchor off Manhattan (Byrd plans on “overwintering” on the ice before taking to the air in springtime).
Gawronski is rousted, ejected and returned to his parents’ custody. But not before he charms Byrd, who sees in the youth a chutzpah after his own heart. Gawronski is not to be denied; he steals aboard another vessel in Byrd’s fleet. Again, he’s busted but, now 18, hitches a ride to Virginia to intercept it at its first port of call. Byrd caves, won over by Gawronski’s indomitable spirit (and presumably recognizing good copy when he sees it — the episode is enacted before a reporter). Gawronski is hired on; their fates conjoined.
America was gripped by “Byrdmania.” Besides Gawronski’s serial infiltrations, Byrd fielded tens of thousands of applications from prospective fellow travelers, Rockefellers and Vanderbilts included. Aspects of the enterprise seem keenly contemporary — a proto-GoFundMe project filmed for the edification of those back home (“With Byrd at the South Pole” won the 1930 Academy Award for cinematography). Anticipating reality TV, some hopefuls bunked in a shared house.
Otherwise, it’s emblematic of a vanished era: a heady moment when stocks ticked up toward ever giddier highs, the future felt wide open and a high school graduate with nothing to declare but ambition and audacity — certainly no marketable skill — could, like Gatsby, find a real-world outlet for his adolescent daydreams. Thus, it appears as amateurism’s last gasp. Byrd’s subsequent Antarctic exploration would be confined to experts on the government’s dime — no freebooting opportunists as ballast. Throwing this into sharper relief, the expedition is hinged over the 1929 Wall Street Crash; Byrd returns to an America on the skids toward full-blown depression.
Shapiro narrates this period piece with gusto. But pushed beyond an elevator pitch, “The Stowaway”’s high concept stalls.
The ocean passage devolves into a breezy travelogue that Shapiro offputtingly treats like a bucket-list excursion: “Animal lover that he was, every whale call had [Gawronski] bolting to the bridge…He…yearned to see a blue, the largest animal on Earth…After days, he finally saw his blue.”
More generally, “The Stowaway” meanders like a gap-year round-the-world trip. Bounced from the team pre-winter — Byrd figures the teen is more valuable back home sustaining interest there — Gawronski marks time in Bayside before returning to collect Byrd after his flyover. It doesn’t help that there’s a distinct whiff of publicity stunt about his presence on the expedition in the first place — ginned up by a “scoop”-hungry journalist and blared by Byrd’s press office.
Gawronski struggles to parlay his 15 minutes into a second act. Thanks to strings pulled by Byrd, he enrolls as a dentistry major at Columbia but drops out. As the imperative to bring in money forecloses on more exalted possibilities, he endures a stint in the family business.
Works of high adventure and derring-do draw on a certain compact between reader and writer. The reader is opened up to a ripping yarn and wholesome uplifting fare about the human spirit. But it’s incumbent on the writer to cast the spell and induce the reader to submit. For all the glitter of its premise, “The Stowaway” fails to work this magic. Which may be another way of saying it’s all in the execution.
Eventually Gawronski landed in the Merchant Marines. Among his first cargoes: the 1936 U.S. Olympic team, including Louis Zamperini, subject, Shapiro notes, of Laura Hillenbrand’s “Unbroken.” In Zamperini, Hillenbrand struck high-concept gold: juvenile delinquent turned Olympic track star and bombardier endures adversity — privation adrift in enemy waters then abuse at the hands of brutal captors — before finding redemption in forgiving his tormentors. But to suppose “Unbroken”’s power lies in its fortuitous subject matter slights Hillenbrand’s artistry. “Unbroken” is a tour-de-force, setting standard for narrative nonfiction that this book never meets. “The Stowaway”’s titular character appears strictly in silhouette, straitjacketed as a “rapscallion,” “loveable scoundrel,” “rascal” and “reformed roustabout.”
This could be rooted in the limitations of the record; a more filled-out picture may simply be unrecoverable. But Shapiro is invested in the caricature of Gawronski as angelic scamp and anything that might ruffle its smooth contours is discounted. En route south another crew member writes disparagingly of Tahitian women — sentiments that “could never have flowed from urbanite Billy’s pen,” she avers.
All of which begs the question of whether “The Stowaway” isn’t a book that would have made a great magazine article. In pursuit of the blockbuster narrative nonfiction grail, it comes across as inflated. Like a photographic miniature blown up to poster size and tricked out in Instagram hues, its definition blurs; you lose yourself in the pixels.
Phillips has written for the Atlantic, Smithsonian Magazine, NPR, the San Francisco Chronicle, the Financial Times, Times Higher Education and other publications.
Laurie Gwen Shapiro