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The nature of martyrdom is rich, complex fictional territory--but though novelist/journalist Koning (a.k.a. Koningsberger) seems to take on that subject here, he never rises to it: what begins as a seductive, meditative mystery becomes the sappy, didactic story of one man's radicalization. This narrator-hero is David Lum, 40-ish office manager of a rundown flying school on Long Island--whose life changes when a young woman appears at the school, wanting lessons in a hurry. She calls herself Beatrix Orme, but David recognizes her as Jean More, a high-school girl he once met in Chicago, a girl who went on to become a radical student wanted by the FBI. Soon David and Jean are lovers (""I'll lend you my body, if that's what you need,"" she says); David wonders about her terribly scarred body, about her intense approach to those flying lessons. And only after Jean disappears on her first solo flight over Block Island Sound, does he start learning the truth: Jean ""had been like Karen Silkwood,"" contracting cancer while working at a nuclear-arms plant; she learned to fly so she could drop anti-nuke leaflets over the plant in Providence; and, presumably because of sabotage, she died in the attempt--like her 1930s model, anti-Fascist poet Lauro de Bosis. David's thoughts, then, are of vengeance. But first he must go to Paris, where Jean's daughter (from a brief marriage) lives with a nanny and a cold, neglectful father. He befriends the precocious love-hungry girl, takes a job at the US Battle Monuments Commission, and reads in the library, pondering violent martyrdom--especially that of Suleiman Alepin, who killed Egypt's Napoleonic governor KlÉber . . . or that of German student-terrorist Baader. ""Men feel safer with the passion of Jesus than with the passion of Baader or with the passion of Suleiman Alepin which lasted twenty times as long."" So at last, back in America, David resolves to carry out Jean's original plan: he learns to fly, drops the leaflets, crashes (breaking his legs), and, with ""complete happiness,"" identifies himself to the police: ""I'm Lauro de Bosis."" Through much of this short novel, Koning displays the ironic, spare yet sensual voice that distinguished his best early fiction. And several of the narrative strands--especially the tender relationship with Jean's daughter--are poignantly engaging. But the personal aspects of David's story never add up, and the political/philosophical issues he addresses are ultimately smoothed over or sidestepped--as this alluring, disappointing novel slides into its hollow, radical-inspirational finale.

Pub Date: Oct. 27th, 1981
Publisher: Atheneum