What if a civilian were chosen to join a mission to the moon—and never came back? That’s the basic premise in storywriter Sher’s debut.
And it doesn’t at first seem the kind of thing novels are made of. In an imaginary 1976, Jerry Finch, an absent-minded schoolteacher from Florida, wins a contest sponsored by NASA to be the first civilian to accompany a manned journey to the moon. He trains assiduously—becomes a national hero in the process—and blasts off, only to disappear after the ship reaches the moon’s surface. His fellow astronauts are forced to return to earth without him, and then the vigil begins. The story is told mostly by Jerry’s odd young son, Georgie, whose telling skips gracefully back and forth in time. As Sher continually reminds us, even the mid-1970s were more innocent and patriotic a time than ours, so it’s not surprising that well-wishers from far and near come to the Finch’s suburban neighborhood to camp out and wait for Jerry’s rescue and return. A scummy muckraker sniffs around the campgrounds for secrets to uncover, Georgie’s mother slips into trauma-induced catatonia, and there’s something odd about Georgie’s old babysitter, Angie, and the way she talks about Jerry. Ambling in and out of the narrative are the other astronauts (including Neil Armstrong), who have vowed not to remove their spacesuits until Jerry is found. The suits grow dirtier and dirtier by the day as the men sleep in refrigerator boxes and begin to lose their grip on reality. Adding to the nightmarish quality of it all, Georgie keeps getting phone calls from Jerry, telling him how wonderful it is in space. It’s a ghostly and quiet story, quite marvelously done for a first outing, that makes an absurd-sounding scenario surprisingly moving by the end.
A mysterious and gentle tale of loss conjured out of a more optimistic generation’s shattered dreams.