Palestinian terrorists hijack a flight from New York bound for Frankfurt that holds an unusual group of passengers: a troupe of dancers from the aboriginal Australian Barramatjara tribe. The hijackers single out Frank McCloud, the troupe’s Caucasian manager, as an “Exploiter of Landless People” and attempt to persuade the dancers to join their cause. Whose side will they take? What do the other passengers—a conservative Japanese-American woman, a Fleet Street–journalist, and a Jewish software engineer—have to say about the hijackers message?
As the airliner searches for a landing place in the Mediterranean, Keneally examines how the hijackers and hijacked alike respond under pressure in this explosive novel, which will keep you on the edge of your seat until the very end.
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About the Author
Thomas Keneally (b. 1935) is an Australian author of fiction, nonfiction, and plays, best known for his novel Schindler’s List. Inspired by the true story of Oskar Schindler’s courageous rescue of more than one thousand Jews during the Holocaust, the book was adapted into a film directed by Steven Spielberg, which won the 1993 Academy Award for Best Picture. Keneally was included on the Man Booker Prize shortlist three times—for his novels The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith, Gossip from the Forest, and Confederates—before winning the award for Schindler’s List in 1982. Keneally is active in Australian politics and is a founding member of the Australian Republican Movement, a group advocating for the nation to change its governance from a constitutional monarchy to a republic. In 1983 he was named an Officer of the Order of Australia for his achievements.
Read an Excerpt
Flying Hero Class
By Thomas Keneally
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1991 Serpentine Publishing Company Propriertary, Ltd.
All rights reserved.
Before the Takeoff
It always surprised the troupe manager, Frank McCloud, how calmly they sat. In their big first-class seats, all of them, even tormented Bluey Kannata, looked as self-contained as rich children. They had conquered New York, and it was hard to know what that mean to them. Now they were going — composedly — to Frankfurt. There the full-color programs had already been printed up in a language Whitey Wappitji and the others had no familiarity with.
The troupe were calm about that venue, too. Here, at the start of their flight, they were suffering no preperformance trembles for the sake of Frankfurt. They never seemed to hold any narrow postmortems that McCloud could see, or blame each other for mistakes on stage. They didn't worry about the perversity or mental blinkers of critics.
It was clear to McCloud now, at the close of their New York adventure, that they suffered from dreads and obsessions of their own: Whitey and the Christian Phil and the movie actor Bluey. But they lacked the sort of self-absorption artists were supposed to have. Their show business was in some ways more light, more casual, than show business itself. It was something they did without fear. It was as familiar as buttoning a shirt.
McCloud noticed too this night of the takeoff from New York how Whitey Wappitji, the man of authority and — if there was such a thing in this troupe — tacitly recognized leader, sat in his large aisle seat, hemming in high-living Bluey Kannata from the good things which would soon be rolling up the aisle on the cocktail trolley.
In a jazz bar in the Village, just ten days back, Bluey — a man famous quite apart from his dancing — had asked McCloud, "You reckon I could get any work as a gigolo round here?"
"Here? In New York?"
McCloud was sure he was joking. Bluey was — as he'd frequently proved — the jetsetter of the troupe. Still, you couldn't help but wonder what knowledge of dream trails in the deserts could lead Bluey, the only Barramatjara gigolo in New York, along those complicated streets down there, in SoHo and TriBeCa. Or up the island, for that matter, where the streets were all on a grid and dubbed with numbers but were just as treacherous.
Bluey had been born in the center of an old and therefore apparently barren continent, on a dry river four hundred miles from Alice Springs. He was made from the blood of people who could paint and dance well before anyone else could. The oldest painters then, the oldest dancers.
But here he'd been in the jazz bar in Greenwich Village, weaving to the industrial-strength music and saying "gigolo"!
McCloud had asked him, "Have you ever been one before?"
"In Melbourne," Bluey asserted. "After the picture finished."
For Bluey had been a star in a number of films, but "the picture" was the first one, the one which made his name, the one which film societies gave special screenings of wherever the dancers turned up. In fact, in New York, a city which had taken to the Barramatjara Dance Troupe with passion, the film had been revived and shown on one of the networks. No doubt a print of it, dubbed in German or subtitled, was waiting for their arrival in Frankfurt and would appear on local television during the dance company's run.
Bluey could tell McCloud was skeptical.
"I was a gigolo bloke six months," he lightly confessed — with that brittle levity which was his style. "Got in the shit with the old blokes back home." He said that a lot, that he was regularly in trouble with the Barramatjara elders back in the desert. And the other members of the dance troupe made veiled remarks of the same kind about him.
"I was at it six months," said Bluey. "And listen, don't get the wrong impression, mate. I met nice ladies. They were just fed up with hanging round with yobbos, that's all."
And so — Bluey Kannata: negligent tribesman, sublime dancer, movie star, believer in curses, gigolo bloke! Hemmed in now aboard this flight and for his own health by Wappitji. Because Bluey could take on an edge of bitterness, give off a hot breath of anger, or even see phantoms whenever he was allowed too much bourbon.
Behind Wappitji and Kannata, also strictly composed and already wrapped in a blanket, sat the musician Paul Mungina, who had managed to bring his didjeridoo on board with him. The didj, as Paul familiarly called it, was a tube of wood, carved and painted with totemic designs. From it Paul could evince a sound audiences of all stripes thought of as straight from the earth's most antique lungs. If the mountains talked, you would believe, those ground-down Barramatjara mounds of ocher forty times older than the Alps or Rockies, they would have spoken through Mungina's didjeridoo.
Curiously, the didj came from the tropic north, not the deserts the dancers considered their home. White settlement had mixed peoples up. But whatever evils it had visited on Mungina, it had alerted him to the existence of the didj of the northern tribes, in which instrument he had become an easy master, a sort of joking James Galway of the holy tube of eucalyptus wood.
Paul's didj was not at his side at the moment but had been stowed in the closet up the back with all the businessmen's coats!
Beside Paul Mungina sat the sober Philip Puduma, who was both a tribal elder and a devout Christian. He hadn't attended jazz clubs or seemed to be much tempted at all by terrible New York. Sometimes he had complained in a small voice about how bitter the city's autumn was.
Then, third row from the nose cone, McCloud had the aisle, and the fifth troupe member, a renowned horse rider and stock drover in the Barramatjara country, a man named Tom Gullagara, nicknamed Cowboy, was already asleep, sitting formally straight in the window seat. A quiet, measured drinker, a man who waited in the corner for women with the wit to find him, Cowboy Tom had lived high in New York, but without making the sort of noise about it Bluey couldn't help himself making.
McCloud himself had for his various reasons stayed up late in New York, even by the standards of performing groups. His vision was now ochered and speckled from whiskey excess, and he thought he might even have a minor tremble. He had needed throughout the tour to keep an eye on the fragile Bluey and to be with the troupe in the small hours when they were looking for somewhere to go. Apart from Phil Puduma, who'd suspected the city's Satanic openness, they loved New York for its business-at-all-hours air.
McCloud's own guilty sense now was that his wife, Pauline, had assumed the role of, or been maneuvered into being, one who kept office hours and rose early to talk to bus companies or make airline reservations — all this even though she was not on the tour payroll. She didn't always go out with them on those late night adventures. Her professional sense told her that someone had to be at the base in the hotel, ready to take to the streets if necessary to explain to policemen Bluey's volatile blend of innocence and worldliness. Someone had to explain in emergencies what they would never themselves explain, that they were not brothers in the New York sense. They were not party to either the wisdoms or the griefs of the black underclass. They were Barramatjara tribesmen, and their history was sad, yes, but — even by the standards of this city — fantastical.
Not that there were problems worth mentioning during their New York nights. Yet too often McCloud arrived at Pauline's bedside in a brittle condition to find her sleeping lightly and with a frown, like a doctor on call, prepared for interruptions.
McCloud's experience of New York, the city which was now an unregarded wet blur outside Tom Gullagara's window, hadn't earned him tranquil sleep, and he knew that all night over the Atlantic and Ireland and Western Europe he would be hollow and tremulous and remorseful.
To start with, Pauline was at the back of the plane. He'd hoped that seat vacancies up here would leave him a chance to approach one of the stewards. "My wife's back there — you see, my ticket's paid for by other parties. Whereas she's traveling at her own expense. I wanted her to switch seats, but she's determined. I don't suppose she could ..."
The naive impulses of McCloud's imagination could too readily envision her in a large seat, appeased by the superior booze and food of this end of things. The informed regions, however, projected the exact frown she would wear above the luxury items, wishing she had the proper amplitude of love in which to relish them.
In wanting Pauline up here, at the front of the plane, McCloud couldn't help favoring his simplest suspicions. They were his only source of guidance and had failed him so consistently in the past that he was addicted to them, sealed to them by habitual pain.
All around the troupe, square-jawed and tired-eyed businessmen were disposing their fancy briefcases in lockers or slinging wads of computer printout negligently onto their seats, data to be devoured during the flight, indices to their coming success in West Germany. The most notable figure, however, was a handsome Japanese woman of about thirty or perhaps even thirty-five years. She was ridding herself of her coat, putting it into the hands of a steward.
She was a chatterer, and the tendency seemed to have been wound to a high pitch by — perhaps — die exhilaration of this journey. She talked a lot in a cowboy drawl which marked her as an American Japanese. What did they call them — nisei, issei? She couldn't have been in business like the eaters of data. For she was dressed exactly the wrong way for flying on business — in an undulant green dress suitable only for a cocktail party.
"Why, thanks, honey," she told the steward who had taken her coat.
Even in the chastened condition his New York experiences had put him in, McCloud felt an aesdietic duty to savor the wonderful contrast between her cowboy voice and her broad Asian face.
From the seat in front, however, he heard Paul Mungina murmur, "Bloody Nip!"
For Paul was an old-fashioned patriot and xenophobe. As an instance, he believed in the queen of England and Australia and wouldn't hear a fashionable, republican word against her. And he believed too in the idea that the Japanese had once, during World War II, done frightful things to innocent Australian boys. The fact that supposedly innocent Australian boys had done terrible things to Mungina's tribe — including a massacre of some twenty-seven Barramatjara souls around a desert waterhole on the Northern Territory border as late as 1929 — had done nothing to diminish Paul's respect for Australian institutions and myths. The triumphs and the martyrdoms of Australia's army belonged to Mungina, were part of his story of the world, more than they were for McCloud himself, the white manager of dance troupes, worldling and novelist-by-intent.
McCloud heard the Japanese cowgirl say, "My, my!" as she accepted a fluted glass from a stewardess. "This Californian, honey?"
"It's French," said the stewardess, showing the label.
"My God," said the woman. "You folks certainly live on the whole hog up here at the front of the plane!"
It seemed that she had been luckily bounced upward, as the dance troupe had been themselves in view of their New York success — he with them. He wondered what booking accident had got her here and wished it had befallen Pauline.
There was only one seat left — and that in the smoking section. The last passenger now shuffled in. He was dressed far less carefully than the businessmen who had already arrived. He had an old-fashioned, scuffed briefcase of the kind he had probably brought out of boyhood with him. His shabbiness marked him infallibly (McCloud thought) as British rather than American. He wore a yachting jacket which was not intended to fool anyone, and it was flecked either with ash or dead skin, the fallout of a whiskified middle life.
"Do you have spirits?" he asked the girl who was offering him a drink. She explained that there was no whiskey until they were certain thousands of feet above the earth.
"Then I'll wait," he said. "If you don't mind, love."
To McCloud, this man looked all at once ill beyond bearing, hung over at least to the same limit as McCloud himself, and barely consoled by sleep. From his unfashionable briefcase he took a book printed in German, slung it on his seat. Then he disposed of his case, flopped, and lit a cigarette.
So that was it. Every damn seat was done for now.
In the front row, Wappitji ordered a 7-Up, as if to teach Bluey moderation. But Bluey insisted on champagne. "Champers," he intoned as if he were an English rake.
McCloud noticed the scuffed Englishman watching Wappitji and Bluey from across the aisle. With frank interest he studied first them, then the dancer and the musician in the next row, and then McCloud himself and Tom Gullagara. He rose and approached McCloud, a cigarette in his hand in spite of the No Smoking sign.
"You're with that dance troupe?" he asked McCloud. "The famous Abo one?"
"Yes," said McCloud. He took the hand the man offered and said who he was: McCloud; troupe manager.
The Englishman shook his hand. "I should tell you, everyone was talking about them in Manhattan. Absolutely everyone!"
"Yes," McCloud laughed. The idea of the troupe's glory produced in him a sort of pride and a wry joy. "I know all about it."
But as always when the troupe casually attracted frenzies of approval, McCloud thought one way or another of the novel he had taken the opportunity during the tour to leave with six New York publishers. No one was talking about it. Everyone was talking about the Barramatjara Dance Troupe, and they didn't even relish fame. Fame was an irrelevance to them. Only for their manager was it a raging and unrequited need.
"But tell me," said the Englishman, dropping his voice, "they don't have any sense of high culture, do they? Isn't it a case of they dance because they dance because they dance? Isn't that so? They don't dance for the same reason the kids at Juilliard or Covent Garden do, that's for sure." The voice dropped theatrically further. He was not a man being wary of his opinions. He was playing at it, though. "So, given that, isn't there something artificial to their appearing in dance theaters?"
McCloud didn't want to discuss this question. He had already earnestly faced it from a dozen aging and wrinkled Manhattan smart alecks at receptions for the troupe; while the Barramatjara cut their sundry swaths through cocktail receptions in New York, he'd been stuck with the sour inquiries.
He knew it was based on some knowledge of what people annoyed him by calling primitivism. But it was so clever an idea that it missed everything, it disqualified the questioners from the Barramatjara joy.
For he had learned that the troupe had their cogent reasons for dancing.
"In one sense, you're right," he said. He didn't like talking about the dancers like this, in the third person, in the anthropologist mode. But Tom Gullagara was comatose for the moment, and the others could not hear. "People come to see them for that very reason. That they don't care. And believe me, they don't care. Not in that artistic sense. And that's why they succeed."
"Sure," said the Englishman, mocking McCloud as a sentimentalist.
"Don't worry. They've got a powerful motive to dance."
"And what's that?" asked the Englishman.
"They want to civilize us."
"No," said the Englishman, turning away with lenient little guffaws. "No. Sorry. I'm sure they're dynamite. But I just don't go for that."
They're civilizing you, McCloud considered saying, but he'd said too much anyhow, that idea of the Barramatjara on a humanizing mission: something Bluey had confessed in anger one morning, something not meant to be repeated or used against any stray Englishman.
So McCloud switched back to mere questions of art. He was surprised to notice that although he wanted to rout the man, he wasn't as angry with him as he expected. The fellow had a crooked charm of some sort.
"As for the other kind of stuff," McCloud continued, "you know, the dance and the art. I just wish we could all stop ourselves trying too damn hard. Because they can, and people love it."
The Englishman seemed to have had his fun out of the argument, and now he dropped it. He stubbed out a cigarette and said his name was Victor Cale, and that he worked for the London Daily Telegraph.
Excerpted from Flying Hero Class by Thomas Keneally. Copyright © 1991 Serpentine Publishing Company Propriertary, Ltd.. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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