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WHERE THE COLD WAR COWBOYS MEET THE EXTRATERRESTRIALS

TERRESTRIALS:
A Novel
By Paul West
Scribner
380 pages, $24

A literary pilot should review this new Paul West novel. West seems to know as much about Cold War military aviation as Thomas Pynchon knew about rocket science in "Gravity's Rainbow." How actual is West's seeming mastery of its language and its knowledge? Rocket scientists, I'm told, certify Pynchon. We need a retired U-2 pilot who likes to read novels to scan West's expertise.

"Booth murmurred hello to Djibouti as they slid over its khaki splotch at a height of 16 miles."

This novel takes off, jet engines roaring, into totally masculine space. Few women readers are going to follow Booth and Clegg, West's two U-2 pilots and James Bond Top Gun guys, through their survival ordeal of eating scorpions and chewing rock salt in the African desert, for all the elegance and acumen of its writing. Those who do get out of the desert must next deal with a long Kafkaesque interrogation/debriefing of Booth and Clegg. It's a weird sort of spy-agency investigation, spooky and full of witty jousting and mordant repartee.

The talk in "Terrestrials" is pretty much testosterone-laced jabber. If you like Cold War military aviation, "Terrestrials" comes right at you. Men are desperate at the end of this century. What's left to them? Where's a good man to spit these days, or smoke his stogie? In their immense nova-like novels -- "Terrestrials," "Mason & Dixon" and "Blood Meridian" -- West, Pynchon and Cormac McCarthy eject into 18th and 19th century adventure spaces -- the African desert, the colonial Pennsylvanian forest, the Sonoran desert. They encounter tribal people, endure ordeals, chew on scorpions; they do hard male work.

Who is that singing on MTV, "Where have all the cowboys gone?"

There is a fabulous cockpit ejection early in "Terrestrials," sound, sight and sensation beautifully rendered, right down to the "splumpf" of the opening parachute. Cold War cowboys shot down in the desert, Booth and Clegg finally escape their several confinements and make their way through western Pennsylvania into upstate New York. In Cayuga country they start a small commercial airline, Perigee Air.

All along, as one is reading, there are anomalies and incongruities, bumps and turbulences. Booth or Clegg, for example, will refer to an event that hasn't yet happened. We are always already in flight fantasy, separating aviation from its grounding social history. Love the Messerschmitt 109. Love the Stuka, its cunning canvas leggings. Love the Battle of Britain, military aviation's finest moment. Warriors respect warriors and respect their weapons.

As I say, it's tough going for women readers. Says Booth: "Sex is the only barbaric thing left to those who do not kill. They need an equivalent to risking their lives." As a sex writer, West is consistently lame. He's brilliant doing air poetry, but grounded in the bedroom. It is not damaging the suspense of the story, I think, to say that this suspect Booth-Clegg narrative collapses finally into a metafictive black hole. We have been reading, we learn, not a novel per se, but a garbled message from a line officer in an extraterrestrial central intelligence agency. His name is One Eighth Humbly. He complains about his narrative agents: "Whoever told you the first several hundred pages has now been demoted to crater inspector, having imposed on the text certain hints of his origin."

I'm not taken by the virtuosity of this move. It doesn't one bit invalidate the high-level he-man novel West has just written. It just puts it askew.

The metaphor is that the extraterrestrials, for all their scanning knowledge, do not get it right. They make factual mistakes. What do we look like to scanning extraterrestrials? How do they construct us? Booth andClegg are male bonders, American version. They speak a language and survive an ordeal. As they escape authority and flee into upstate New York, they pass through Elmira, holy Mark Twain country.

Humbly's after-script is a very curious text. Humbly isn't so humbly. In fact, he is imperious and testy, giving directions and issuing advisories. He demands a closer reading. He cites the pages you need to reread.

He keeps morphing into the author, whose phrase is irascible. Humbly likes reading scripts in this genre like "Wings of the Luftwaffe." He likes dive bombers and dive bombing.

Forthcoming in November and massive, big and yellow, on the horizon, is Larry McMurtry's "Comanche Moon." Here's where the cowboys are, Woodrow and Gus.

McMurtry would never play the trick West pulls in "Terrestrials." Everything will be just right in "Comanche Moon," boot and buckle.

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