By Luke Davies
Allen & Unwin, NZ$38 | Reviewed by Amy Brown

LUKE DAVIES, one of Australia’s favourite poets, novelists and now screenwriters, does an excellent job of characterising Howard Hughes, America’s favourite obsessive-compulsive aviator, in his latest novel, God of Speed. Even if you haven’t seen Martin Scorsese’s The Aviator, you may be familiar with Howard Hughes from the episode of The Simpsons in which Mr Burns has an aeroplane called the Spruce Moose, and locks himself away, growing a long beard and fingernails.

Having displayed an articulate understanding of drug-addled, complex characters, and having dipped his toe in the film industry, with Candy, Davies was well prepared to elaborate on Scorsese’s depiction of the mad movie mogul’s descent from the fastest man in the world to a needle-dependent hermit. I watched Scorsese’s blockbuster after having read Davies’ visceral and poetic first-person narration, and it’s difficult to say whether, had I done it the other way round, my opinion of the novel would have changed.

Scorsese and Davies probably studied from the same biographies; some sections of the film and the novel – the aftermath of Hughes’ plane crash, for instance – are identical. However, the advantage a book will always have over a film is more flexibility in dealing with time and space. Although Scorsese’s film isn’t as rushed, elided and monotonous as many bio-pics, it isn’t as lean and immediate as Davies’ novel. And, although Cate Blanchett does a damn good job of adopting Katharine Hepburn’s mannerisms, she just isn’t Katharine Hepburn. In God of Speed, each starlet is described in such a way that you can’t help but see them through Hughes’ eyes (every part of them, too – where Scorcese implies sex, Davies is entirely explicit), each flight is precisely break-taking and each pang of anxiety over something being unclean or out of place is acutely felt.

Structured simply, with Hughes narrating a monologue to Jack Real, from his London apartment, which he is soon to leave for his last flight, Davies’ novel concentrates on Hughes’ fascinating point of view – on his memories of his brilliance and cruelty, and on the vulnerability and meticulousness that comes with obsessive-compulsive disorder. Punctuating the chapters are Hughes’ own memos, recorded verbatim, left for his staff of efficient Mormons, who cared for him in his decrepitude. These instructions are wonderfully exact in their execution and mundane in their subject; they range from outlining the procedure for fetching Hughes’ hearing-aid cord to how to write a proper memo. “The word ‘shall’ shall be used throughout instead of “will” in the third person singular and plural, making all sentences in the imperative rather than the indicative. The infinitive shall not be used to express a major thought, except as an auxiliary to a main verb.” Davies’ control of his language and understanding of Hughes’ characters means that these memos serve not to provide an element of realism, but to prove that the fictional chapters are not only compelling but biographically truthful.

While this novel isn’t particularly interesting or ambitious in its shape, its subject provides plenty of scope, and, so soon after Scorsese’s film, gives an indication of Davies’ confidence. “It is all a catastrophe. And all a glory. What am I hoping to remember, and what am I trying to forget? It’s difficult to keep it all straight. Because everything cycles around again.” The first two sentences of this excerpt sum up nicely Davies’ depiction of Hughes’ life. The last sentences suggest well the way that Davies depicts Hughes’ life. This is a satisfying, intelligent novel, which deserves to be read by both Howard Hughes fans and those who only know of him through The Simpsons.