PRISONERS OF FLIGHT by sid gustafson, author's debut novel, 2003, The Permanent Press
McMillion Chronicle review
Veterinarian by day, novelist by night.
Prisoners of Flight, Washington State Magazine review
Prisoners of Flight
Prisoners of Flight Book Review The Independent, July 2, 2003,
the Hamptons, Long Island, New York
By Joan Baum
We wince, we keep reading. This first novel by a Montana doctor of veterinary medicine moves with compelling, sometimes beautiful, and sometimes brutal, imagery. Shelley is famously blunt for opening his elegiac tribute to Keats, “I weep for Adonais -- he is dead.”
But here’s Gustafson, starting off this strange tale of bonding in the Northwest wilderness with “Henson’s dead.” Hen Son, part Blackfeet Indian, part Cree, had his name anglicized by the military. Later on, what Vietnam did not destroy, Captain Henson lost to a freak fishing accident and an inability to reconnect with the world of civilization -- an eye, his wife, his ranching business, though not his love of nature or a capacity for deep friendship with the narrator, Dr. Sling Roop, a veterinarian.
Their lives go back to training days in the Air Force Academy and then, after being shot down over the China Sea, to time spent at the Hanoi “Hilton,” where they were tortured. Prisoners of flight, they become prisoners of those memories. Ironically, they also find escape from the past in flying.
Prisoners of Flight begins with a brief present-tense prologue by Sling, who is airborne, but as he recalls Henson’s recent death, and “clouds bleed up the setting sun,” his judgment falters and the plane goes down. Injured, stunned, memories invade, and the stream of consciousness that ensues constitutes the actual story that will eventually connect with the prologue and explain how Henson died. The memories are many-layered but center on the recent weeks when Sling and Henson lived together in the wilderness after they flew blind and crashed in a desolate part of northern Montana. Within minutes of that crash, two college-age girls appeared, having seen the plane fall. They are twins, running away from an unhappy home and searching for their dog, who bounded into the forest. The situation is bizarre, but Gustafson avoids the expected and with great skill pulls their stories together, showing how they are all prisoners of flight. Essentially, however, the novel is a kind of love story between Sling and Hen, two maimed souls whose intimacy allows them to communicate with subtle gestures and code taps, and whose fierce need to escape into a pure, albeit dangerous sky, speaks volumes about the psychological and physical damage wrought by the Vietnam war, the addictions it bred, and the irreparable social discontent it generated.
It’s amazing what Gustafson packs in, including lore about veterinary medicine, some of it as discomforting as it is true, about what even the most compassionate animal lover has to undergo interning and then in practice. War made Sling “an animal” and drove him to drugs, but another war drew him to alcohol -- the losing battle against “stupid heartless people” who insisted he put their healthy pets to sleep. He loses wife, son, daughter, and home. Nonetheless, he is an admirable, decent human being, and readers will lament the passing of his kind: Machines? Not for him. They don’t know “the tone, the surge of capillaries, the pulsing blood.” People today “insist on machines—numeric proof, undeniable proof. They don’t trust a doctor’s touch, not anymore. I’m on my way out.”
In the wilderness, with Henson, Sling finds the insecurity he needs to slow him down and allow him to be a fully sensate being. “Living here is a ceremony, replete with sacrifice and rapture.” Together, in nurturing mode, Sling and Henson teach the girls what it means to live and face death. Yet, for all his instinctive and intuitive smarts, Sling knows he is not an animal, that man cannot live in the wilderness, that flight has limits. This is a haunting book. As summer deepens and city folk look to nature, to the outback, to so-called roughing it, it is refreshing to come across a literary account of The Real Thing -- so graphic, so poetically rendered.
Prisoners of Flight, a novel by Sid Gustafson, The Permanent Press, 176 pp. $18
Copyright © 2002 East Hampton Independent News Co
In Prisoners of Flight, Sid Gustafson’s veterinarian protagonist refers often to angels: “We haven’t heard from our angels in a long time. But they’re out there . . . waiting somewhere in the sky.”
Two ex-military pilots, Gustafson’s protagonist and his comrade, Henson, crash their plane into wilderness alongside Montana’s Flathead River. Former Vietnam POWs, they have wrestled with life’s trials ever since, holding to a single constant: a fierce longing for an idealized sky. Says Gustafson’s protagonist: “The flying rule is: When in doubt, do nothing. But I’m not flying anymore.” For indeed, Gustafson’s characters are themselves fallen forms of the angels they seek.
Gustafson (B.S., D.V.M. ’77) manages both an economy of words and a compelling lyricism. There’s a rhythm here that makes for a read difficult to interrupt. And he’s not afraid to toss the rules. Single-word sentences. Pop phraseology. Recurring metaphors. The result is a harrowing adventure part magical realism (with a hint of psychedelia), part paean to the deep forest, part redemption chronicle, and part cryptogram.
Gustafson strands his characters with only a river shack for shelter. Soon, twin sisters—“two breathless earth cookies”—searching for their dog (named Hope—“lost Hope”) emerge from the forest cold and bewildered.
The protagonist recalls how he and Henson communicated cell-to-cell as POWs—through tapping out a simple alphabetic code. They repeatedly refer to this “old dance,” often lapsing into it. Acutely aware of their frailties and failures, they call often on God. And while longing to be back in the sky, they fool themselves like lost boys whistling in the dark that happiness can be found on the ground: “Our earthbound angels can’t stop smiling. And we thought they only lived in the constellations of our skyblown minds.”
The narrative dealing with Henson’s fate is both mythic and sad. (I’m not giving away much here, since the first two words of Gustafson’s novel are, “Henson’s dead.”) Finally, the protagonist’s escape and redemption are pulse-pounding.
There is much that is satisfying about Prisoners of Flight. Best is that it ends, as all good prayers do, with a single word, tapped out in code:
— Brian Ames ’85, author of Smoke Follows Beauty (Pocol Press, 2002), Head Full of Traffic, (Pocol Press, 2004),and Eighty-Sixed (Word Riot Press, 2004).
Living the literary life: Sid Gustafson, a veterinarian by day, published two books this summer along with a pair of short stories
By SCOTT McMILLION, Chronicle Staff Writer, June, 2003
It might be some kind of literary record, at least as far as local authors are concerned.
Sid Gustafson, a Bozeman veterinarian, has had two books published this summer, along with two short stories in new collections of literary work. The plot synopsis of Gustafson's first novel "Prisoners of Flight," (The Permanent Press) sounds a little suspect: two 50-ish former Vietnam POWs crash their small plane high in the Montana Rockies, only to find a well-stocked cabin and a pair of college-age twin sisters. But the story never takes the obvious plot twist. Rather, the tale remains chaste and goes interior, deep inside the mind of protagonist Sling Roop, an alcoholic veterinarian with only one good ear. Sling and his buddy, a Cree/Blackfoot named Henson with only one eye, have a long history together and their days at the Air Force Academy, their time in prison camp is only part of it.
It soon becomes clear that they stay so long in the backcountry only because they want to. They have marooned themselves by choice, looking both for a place to hide and a place to seek. Although the story line has some minor weak spots, the book's imagery and sparse, elegant language pulls you through. Linguistic gems pepper almost every page. A jet's contrail, Gustafson tells us, is "a scar of flight." And when a cloud slips under the moon, it leaves the world "sipping blackness." Sling focuses on his senses, relying on his nose, tastebuds and fingertips to diagnose his patients and divine his surroundings. Yet he knows the dangers of living too closely in the sensory world. "I know how the senses can deceive," Gustafson writes. "They aren't math and physics, sensations can fool a mortal." His second book is less literary, but likely to be a good seller. Entitled "First Aid for the Active Dog," (Alpine Publications) it relies on the skills he applies in his day job and tells people how to take care of their canines when mishaps happen and there's no vet around. "I like that book," Gustafson said. "It balances out the edge the fiction has, that some people wrinkle their noses at." The slim book avoids technical jargon and is packed with practical information on everything from plucking porcupine quills to administering canine CPR to diagnosing altitude sickness. The two short stories (Gustafson has published a number of others in literary magazines) appear in two Birch Brook Press collections entitled "The Suspense of Loneliness, Stories of the Forlorn," and "Tales for The Trail, Adventures in Air, Land and Sea."In the latter book, Gustafson's story "Sequel," is the lead story and the one on which the book's cover design is based. A novel, a nonfiction how-to book and short stories in two collections, all in one summer. It's not a bad trick for a 48-year-old full-time veterinarian. Gustafson, a Conrad native, comes from a creative and literary family. His father Rib, also a vet, has written books about his own life in the Hi-Line country and about Lewis and Clark. His sister Kristin, a lawyer, published a book about maritime law. His brother Eric, a teacher and musician, wrote a lengthy history of ancestors who were World War II heroes. And another brother, Wylie, is a country music recording artist and songwriter whose famous yodel is used in Yahoo! commercials. Gustafson works on animals at his Church Street clinic and lives in an upstairs apartment, where he writes every day, usually around mid-day when the press of sick animals and distressed owners hits a lull. "All the urgent veterinary stuff gets handled early in the morning," he said. The novel took five years to write, he said, and the dog first-aid book took a little longer. There's more on the way. Another novel, entitled "Horsemen," is now making the rounds of publishers and Gustafson will supplement the dog book with one that addresses first aid for horses. Few people in this area know of his literary work, although he has fans around the country, in places like Louisiana and New York's Hamptons, where literary magazines have been publishing his work for several years. "I've got enclaves of fans in places I've never been," he said. Gustafson will appear July 29, 2003 at the Country Bookshelf in Bozeman, at 7 p.m., to read from his new work.