At birth, Nathaniel Hawthorne Flowers (the protagonist in Jack B. Rochester’s fictional autobiography Wild Blue Yonder, 2011) is “given the gift” of being named after his father’s favorite author. After his dad’s untimely death, Nathaniel flunks out of his local community college and embarks on a voyage of self-discovery – i.e., he joins the United States Air Force to avoid being drafted into the Army and sent as cannon-fodder into Vietnam.
When Nathaniel – who is a bookish, somewhat prissy young man – finishes training, he is sent to San Ramon Air Force Base near San Francisco. This is the San Francisco of the Sixties, and Nathaniel immediately embraces Hippie Culture; he discovers pot, attends the first Human Be-In, goes to concerts, and hangs out in Haight-Ashbury whenever he is off duty. He hears Timothy Leary speak, and after his first LSD trip in a friend’s converted wine vat Nathaniel tunes in, turns on, and drops out (but not so far out as to get into any trouble, you understand).
Paradise is lost when a clerical error postpones a timely promotion and Nathaniel (who never really seems to grasp the whole “chain of command” concept) writes to his congressman to complain. The resultant publicity garners his promotion but makes him persona non grata as far as the Air Force is concerned. When the rest of his communications squadron is sent to Southeast Asia, he is stripped of his Top Secret clearance and sent to Kleinelachen Army Air Base in Germany to finish his tour of duty. The punishment: his dream job as a reporter for the Stars and Stripes, with the guarantee that none of his stories will ever be published. Fortunately, Nathaniel finds solace in some like-minded troops. This group calls themselves “The Children of the Future,” and Nathaniel Hawthorne Flowers spends the remainder of his enlistment smoking dope, dropping acid, and having deep philosophical discussions with the Woodstock soundtrack playing in the background.
The other gift bequeathed to Nathaniel by his high-school-English-teacher father was “a love of the world’s great literature,” and this is a passion which is obviously shared by the author. In Wild Blue Yonder Rochester pays tribute to the writers, poets, and musicians who shaped his own world-view and, perhaps, inspired his own writing career. Unfortunately, this book is what happens when someone who loves the classics tries to write them with nothing but enthusiasm to draw upon. A self-conscious attempt to combine Heller, Heinlein, and Kesey has resulted in such painful prose as, “I thought about zeitgeist. Zeitgeist, zeitgeist, the mighty light of ten thousand suns challenging infinity. Zeitgeist.” Although there are occasional gems (“’That’s a decanter full of bullshit,’ said Alan”), most of the dialogue is stilted and pedantic. The stream-of-consciousness descriptions of LSD trips are particularly appalling. Drug-induced insight is a lot like singing opera in your dreams; though it may be profoundly beautiful inside your head, when you try to share it with other people you find that you’re braying like a donkey with strep throat.
Wild Blue Yonder is the first book of a trilogy. For his readers’ sakes, let us hope that Nathaniel’s “coming of age” saga matures along with him.
October 8, 2018