Saturday, November 20, 2010

D.B.: A Novel / by Elwood Reid

A native of Cleveland, Ohio, Elwood Reid worked as a bartender, a teacher, a cook and even a carpenter in the wilds of Alaska before he was able to earn a living as a fiction writer. He is a 1994 graduate of the University of Michigan where he majored in English, lettered as an offensive lineman on the football team and later recieved his M.F.A. His 1999 short story collection What Salmon Know was well-recognized for its vivid portrait of the hardscrabble, yet dignified lives of working class American males. D.B. is the semi-factual tale of "D.B. Cooper", a man who in 1971 orchestrated the only successful airline hijacking in American history.
On November 24, 1971 Northwest Airlines Flight 305 took off from Portland International Airport bound for Seattle. Shortly after takeoff, a man going by the name of D.B. Cooper handed a note to the flight attendant which read "I have a bomb in my briefcase. I will use it if necessary. I want you to sit next to me. You are being hijacked." Upon arrival in Washington state, Cooper allowed passengers to exit the airplane in exchange for $200,000 and a parachute before ordering the pilot to once again take off with a course set for Mexico City. Cooper was never seen or heard from again, having exited the plane in-flight somewhere over the Pacific Northwest and vanishing without a trace despite a massive FBI investigation and ongoing manhunt over the next several years.

The man known as D.B. (Dan B.) Cooper at the time of the plane heist was (and remains) a man named Phil Fitch. A Vietnam veteran thoroughly fed up with his non-descript life, his going-nowhere job and a wife who's left him for something better, Fitch had made the decision to attempt the daring exploit out of little more than elevated frustration and a need to prove to himself that he is in fact capable of greatness. The hijacking having been got off successfully reconfirms to Fitch what he's always suspected but never verified--that he is indeed a man of destiny for whom a life of anonymous drudgery is unfit. Things since haven't been quite as exciting. Drifting aimlessly in the years following his crime, Fitch has been in Mexico for the better part of his life as a fugitive, floating around with other expats and similarly situated refugees, many the by-products of 1960's/70's counterculture movement who ironically share much of the same philosophy of anti-convention and an untethered lifestyle though none of the daring ambition.
Paralleling Fitch's own shiftless, anti-climactic life is Frank Marshall, the FBI agent who'd originally headed the investigation into the hijacking. With the frustrating failure of the still unsolved case after years of inconsequential evidence and fruitless leads, Marshall has been mired in his own personal rut owing largely to too much time on his hands and not enough closure. Due in part to his participation in the Cooper case but also due to a myriad of other near-miss assignments, Marshall has been retired prematurely by the bureau and has spent the last few decades feeling the weight of his own purposeless existence. On a whim when he decides to aid an ambitious young agent look into the Cooper case, Marshall suddenly stumbles upon a shred of evidence which leads him back on the trail of the elusive fugitive and a quite unexpected revival of his flair for life. In a short time, as the case finds its way back in to the public conscious, both men--Cooper and Marshall--are set on a course which will inevitably witness a rather awkward resolution to the distinguishing pinnacle of each of their lives.
In this finely crafted re-imagining of one of the most high-profile hijackings in American history, Reid accomplishes something few other writers really do: fully realize the human condition within two divergent, though not so different characters--one having achieved the romantic ideal through criminal means, the other sticking to the honest life and yet self-perceived as a failure. And though everything outside the actual 1971 event and subsequent disappearance of D.B. Cooper, including Cooper's real identity as Fitch and Marshall, is hypothetical, it's not hard to go along with the story. Reid is good at highlighting the motivations of his characters and providing the background detail as to why someone like Fitch or Agent Marshall could yearn for something more in life. It's not even much of a leap for the reader to tap in to why Fitch would have the sheer audacity to pull off something on such a scale as an airplane hijacking for purely personal reasons just like it's comfortingly familiar perceive his subsequent life as a still dissatisfied individual. (FIC REID) 

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