Oh to be a Hack: A Review of Sky Command by Anton Richler
This is a review of Sky Command, a novel of Luftwaffe pilots at the end of World War II, by Anton Richler.
(1) I am not saying Anton Richler is a hack. The presentation of the book, though, makes him look like one. It is a ‘Trojan’ paperback, but the original publisher is (possibly) Badger books, an imprint hardly renowned for quality and carefully considered output… there is minimal publication info (no date of original publication, no date of this issue), no page numbers (!) and no cover art credit. Below is a scan of a random sample to demonstrate the incredible carelessness of the typesetting — notice how the letters ripple up and down. There are more than a few typographical errors, and the paper is only one step above the stuff that wrapped my fish and chips last week.
(2) This is actually a fascinating story, made doubly so by my recent reading of Cheshire, VC and The Dam Busters, two non-fiction books, written about the victorious British by a couple of victorious Australians. The Cheshire book is worth a review, and such a review may get written one day…
Reading Sky Command (a generic name if ever there was one), there is something poignant that comes through even in the purplest of prose — the men portrayed are just men, fighting hopelessly to defend a country they love that is ruled by a party they do not believe in and that had dragged them into this useless war. The knowledge that their efforts are doomed adds a resonance that an equally pulpy but ultimately triumphal story would not have. The result is that despite some fairly purple prose that smacks of padding
the book is quite compelling reading, with sympathetic protagonists, economically evoked action scenes, and apparently a sound knowledge of the aircraft and the military situation around the time of the Ardennes campaign (the ‘Battle of the Bulge’).
(3) The setting of the book around the time of the Ardennes campaign is a master-stroke, as well; we get the very moment when the last slim hopes of throwing the Allies back into the sea are ended, viewed through the eyes of a small band of exhausted pilots whose job is to support the offensive with air-strikes against enemy convoys. When the remaining pilots are withdrawn to defend Berlin from the advancing Russians, the hopelessness of the German cause becomes clear. The pragmatists hope merely to slow the Russians down, on the principle that the less of Germany under Russian control the better. The fin de siècle atmosphere is apparent. And through it our protagonist fights on, though he wonders why.
(4) In conclusion: This is a book of many weaknesses — several of them the fault of the book production department, not the author — but many compelling strengths. I love that cover with the two guys walking away from the holed plane, one using his hands to illustrate some point of the aerial battle just gone. Richler gives it an air of authenticity and a mood and atmosphere that lends the tale depth. The view from ‘the other side’ is fascinating. The prose and the dialogue are rather blunt instruments at times, and a couple of paragraphs read as if there was a bomb strapped to the typewriter that would go off if the author stopped hitting keys. Yet the tale remains entertaining. Richler knows what makes a story work, knows how to keep you reading, and does not turn anybody into cannon fodder or a faceless scapegoat.
It is that kind of pulpy, hackish fiction that borders on being really very fine. If the author had more time to spend, if the publishers edited it properly, if the author perhaps thought more of his own talents and aimed at All Quiet on the Western Front rather than the newsstand, this could have been a major work.
But, hell, it’s a lot of fun. And if I could write a book like this, if I could be a hack as good as this author, I’d be a happy man.