By Michael Upchurch
Seattle Times book critic
Some readers swear by Harry Potter. I prefer to swear by Peter Leroy.The Book Show
Peter, Eric Kraft’s boy hero from Babbington, Long Island (“Clam Capital of America”), is the whiz-kid veteran of a score of zany adventures chronicled in “Little Follies,” “Where Do You Stop?” and other installments in “The Personal History, Adventures, Experiences & Observations of Peter Leroy.” And it’s a little puzzling why he and Babbington haven’t become as prominent a part of American pop culture as, say, Garrison Keillor’s Lake Wobegon. (I do realize it’s impossible to hope he could rival Potter popularity.)
One pleasure of the series is that you get so many Peters in a single book: the boyhood Peter, confident of his place in the microcosm of Babbington; the venturesome Peter always taking on new projects (many inspired by his favorite magazine, Impractical Craftsman); and the middle-age Peter, blissfully married but with a wary view of the world around him and his own prospects in it.
In the best of the Leroy tales, Kraft fondly and humorously evokes the foibles, limitations and allure of small-town America. And for those who enjoy literary games, the books come festooned with sometimes pointed, sometimes ridiculous allusions to the classics of world literature.
“On the Wing” continues Kraft’s “Flying” trilogy, which opened last year with “Taking Off.” Volume One found Peter trying to correct the false impressions that led to him being celebrated as “the ‘Birdboy of Babbington,’ the epitome of American ingenuity and pluck, teen division.”
True, he built himself an aerocycle at age 14. And true, he got it to New Mexico and back. But what he never made clear was that 99 percent of his journey was either earthbound or aboard a commercial airliner.
“Taking Off” ended with Peter heading west. “On the Wing” chronicles the road trip — or, actually, two road trips: the one he made in his teens and one he makes with his wife, Albertine, decades later, retracing his earlier footsteps.
The American heartland young Peter encounters bears a strong resemblance to Alice’s Wonderland. Some strangers conspire to put him off his food. One tries to hold him for ransom. Others are so worshipful of him that it seems some mistake has been made. No one has heard of Babbington — “Is that on our planet?” — and no one wants to hear about it. And, oh yeah, his aerocycle keeps talking back at him.
Grown-up Peter, with Albertine on hand to smooth things over, has fewer mishaps. But the two still encounter some strange phenomena: a newspaper that prints “Tomorrow’s News Today,” a group-therapy session for people suffering from “pre-traumatic stress syndrome.”
Peculiar museums turn up on both itineraries. And quirks of language, along with quirks of human behavior, are addressed. What, for instance, is the difference between an “egotist” and an “egoist”?
Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu and French proto-surrealist Alfred Jarry are among the guiding cultural lights in “On the Wing,” helping the book achieve liftoff even when Peter’s aerocycle fails to get off the ground. “Taking Off” is clearly the best place to start if you’re wanting to hop aboard Peter’s journey. But “On the Wing” whets a sharp appetite for the closing volume, “Flying Home,” due next summer.
Each week on The Book Show, host Gretchen Holbrook Gerzina interviews authors about their books, their lives and their craft.
Show #992 - week of July 23
Eric Kraft's novel Taking Off is the first in a
comic trilogy about a middle-aged man looking back at the day he made
local history by apparently flying a homemade plane from Long Island to