One of a Million: Zero by Don Callaghan

Horwitz, 1964, first (and only?) edition. 130 pages.

What does one do when almost anything seems like too much thinking is required and the television is as usual showing nothing but exercise machines and cooking shows? Well, these days I image most of us whack on a DVD or a NetFlix or play some kind of computer game. I am boring and old-fashioned, so I read a book that requires very little of me.

This is such a book.


Cover of <i>Zero</i> by Don Callaghan.

Cover of Zero by Don Callaghan.


The action is fast and not overstated (our hero, Cleary, does not shoot down dozens of enemy planes in a few patrols), the situation more than just ‘us versus them’ and the research (or personal experience?) is solid — Callaghan knows the layout of a Kittyhawk cockpit and a few telling details about how planes were maintained by dedicated ground crews, and gives the whole thing an excellent solidity.

The prose is well-controlled, if a little repetitive at times. A few oddities arise…

'a fan in a morgue.'

‘a fan in a morgue.’


…but on the whole this is a fun adventure, full of danger, bravery, determination, more danger, foolishness, and not too many unlikelinesses (though not none).

Comparing it to similar naval stories, some benefits of the tales set on boats become apparent. Mainly, the larger cast. Here we spend most of the book in Cleary’s head. He’s on his own in a plane (mostly) and there’s no convenient way to work in those expository conversations that can happen on the bridge of a destroyer. One result is less humour, since there’s no chiacking of one man by another. Another is that the drama seems a little more forced an d artificial, since people have to be brought together by the plot, instead of already being there.

Would I recommend this book? If you like WWII stories and you can enjoy prose that has not been polished through dozens of drafts, then I would say ‘yes’. Of course, chances are you’ll never find a copy of it anyway. It is ephemera, a fifty-year-old paperback, sold on a news-stand alongside westerns and Galaxy Science Fiction. No ISBN, no credit for the cover art, little imprint information, a new novel of the war in the air available next month.

I would be nice if whoever owned the copyrights to these sorts of books ebooked them and put them up for sale for a dollar or two each. Quite likely they’d never get the money back, but I do wonder. I think J.E.Macdonnell is still popular enough (flimsy, browned paperbacks sell for $8 and more in bookshops and on the web) that a set of $1 or $2 ebooks would attract quite a few readers, and many would work their way through the series bit by bit.

There are so many they could even be sold as a monthly subscription. They’d make great material for audiobooks, too. These old books are vanishing into the past. WWII is a long time ago now. When I was young everybody, it seemed, had a granddad who had fought in the war. Now WW II veterans are as rare as WW I were back then. Plenty of books have been churned out for commercial reasons, and I am not pretending they are great literature, but I like reading them and it seems to me so do others, and the cloud and the e-reader seem like the perfect chance to keep his stuff available.



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About Darren

I'm a scientist by training, based in Australia.

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