In the beginning of Kim Ponders’s well-crafted first novel, The Art of Uncontrolled Flight, five-year-old Annie Shaw dreams of becoming a pilot just like her dad.
In 1972, my father flew cargo planes out of Thailand…. He often surprised my mother and me, returning a day or two early, and my mother would stick her sewing needle in the little battle-weary pincushion or drop the laundry basket at her feet and run to the back door as soon as she heard his boots on the stairs.
Like William Maxwell’s remarkable boy narrator in So Long, See You Tomorrow, Annie Shaw is a retrospective character in the first chapter. Here Ponders aptly fuses the child’s point of view—“The men’s knees poked up from the edge of the sofa like a column of spires”—with an adult’s ability to draw conclusions—“[My mother] argued with herself as she cooked, as if negotiating something between the two halves of herself, the one that wanted my father home and the one that didn’t.” Young Annie sees things acutely: the “battle-weary pincushion,” the “narrow, frostbitten roads,” and her distraught mother, who stands with “a towel twisted fiercely in her hands.”
Things start getting worse: Dad has affairs, Mom drives like hell to the state line with Annie in tow. And then something very bad happens, shockingly, in the space of a paragraph, something Annie will have to recount in a lifetime of shrink sessions, we assume. Instead, thirteen years later, she joins the armed forces; she’ll eventually serve as a pilot in the first Gulf War.
Why would the sharp, sweet girl from chapter 1 want this life? In Ponders’s Air Force there are frat-boy types, frequent dares, and bored, empty hours spent waiting. In a strip club Annie’s buddies cajole her into a lap dance with a woman whose skin is “soaked in vanilla… moist as the inside of a peach.” For this, Annie receives the unsettling pronouncement, “You’re one of us now.” But Annie welcomes it all—the tests and drills and rules. She needs not to think, and this what makes her military career memorable: it lets her escape.
Throughout the novel, Ponders shifts between first- and third-person perspective. The frequent changes in viewpoint provide an appropriate push and pull, and help to further emphasize the detachment Annie orchestrates for herself. In flight, Annie likes “the distance between [herself] and the rest of the world thirty thousand feet below.”
But she has to land eventually. Implicit in the act of “bolting” is the niggling hope of getting caught, the wish for someone left behind to say, “Stop it, come here, come back to me.” Enter Annie’s husband, Dexter, an oil speculator: loyal, patient, grounded. As Annie packs for another tour of duty, wearing her flight suit and throwing things haphazardly into her duffel bag, Dexter clips his toenails and makes a tiny pile of nail shards on their bed.
The story of a woman on active duty is an intriguing one, but I wanted to return to the puzzle of young Annie, to know how the girl who noticed the twisted towel would learn to cope as an adult civilian. As Annie teaches her husband how to fly in the novel’s final chapter, Ponders satisfies this curiosity. We learn here how it feels to leave the earth so drastically, and to return again with skill.