Caged Eagle starts out as promising as anything we've read yet - it sets itself out to be a story that spans a long sweep of time, from the second world war till the dawn of this century. It starts out in familiar territory - a squadron of Recce pilots towards the end of the war. A lot of old friends/references/tropes are back - The Mackenzie Delta, the Falaise Gap, the Otter, a sighting of Rommel by air, the requisite shots at Monty. But the story's WW2 section takes up fully two thirds of the book before we are catapulted into the 21st century with a note from the main character that says "I tried to tell the story of my life in Canada from 1944 to 1998 but it was simply too much. I couldn't hand the detail." Oh right - why would a writer want to get into anything as time consuming the details of a story? By this point, implausibility piles on implausibility, the characters become shrill and irritating and any sense of a story with historical sweep gets left behind in 1944.
The main character of the book, Gator Peters, is a thinly-disguised version of a young Rohmer - brash, cocky, a short 20-year-old who looks 16 and is already a Mustang Pilot. Okay so far. But then Rohmer takes a darker turn - makes him devious, ruthless, callous. Okay, this gets more interesting - Rohmer starts with himself and and his experiences as a template then imagines it through a black mirror. An anti-hero - a thoroughly unlikable main character. This isn't something he's attempted before (well, at least intentionally). And then, and then ... we get to page 64. Page 64 contains a photograph of a young Richard Rohmer and identifies it as a photo of Gator Peters. What?? What kind of weird turn is that? Is Rohmer identifying himself with his most despicable character? Is this a wish fulfillment for a life of greed and double-crosses not lived? Or is it just the impossible-to-resist temptation of ego gratification with no thought given to the, er, psychological undertones of writing a book featuring a character based on yourself that is nothing if not evil and then using a photograph of yourself to illustrate what he looks like? Yeesh.
Do two EPs make an LP?
One of the characters in the book is a rich Canadian named E.P. Tyler. Okay, you think, Rohmer has done a biography of E.P. Taylor, so that makes sense. The thinly-veiled Tyler has many of the same details of Taylor's life - raises horses for example, which kind of make sense. But then late in the book, Rohmer tells us that E.P. Tyler is friends with E.P Taylor. And then it's explained that the two were often confused! Why in the world would you create a fictional counterpoint if you're going to drag in the real thing? At this point I expected Gator Peters to walk into a bar and run into Richard Rohmer.
Twisting by the Pool (or do I mean Telegraph Road?)
If Rohmer was to revise How to Write a Be$t $eller, he'd tell you that the only thing a reader wants in a best-seller is a twist. No, many twists. As many as you can squeeze in. And you should telegraph them clearly so the reader knows they're coming. Examples:
- Mark Tyler's "secret" background, pretending to be a poor farm boy rather than the heir to the biggest fortune in Canada. The observant reader will know something is up when no one can mention him without commenting on how poor his farmer father must be and how little he must have to go back to. That's because his father is a poor farmer. Which means he has nothing to go back to. Because his father is a poor farmer.
- Gator and his wife and son have a plane crash that (spoiler alert!!!!) Gator survives. You'd never know it. Perhaps the fact that Gator writes the intro to this book a couple of years after the plane crash happens may be a clue, but you'd likely miss it, as you will be busy worrying about poor Mark Tyler and how he will have nothing to go back to after the war. Because his father is a poor farmer.
-Louise's parentage. Brian already guessed this in an e-mail to me at the halfway point. You will too.
- The final twist (it's the last paragraph): Spoiler Alert: Quebec votes against separation!
Without a doubt, Caged Eagle is Rohmer's most sexually explicit book. By far. Gone are the days when he added a little to spice things up - Gator's rampaging lust not only defines his character, but sets in motion events that will take the story to it's conclusion some 50 years later. And with this unbridled attitude towards sex, I'm happy to report he's found the perfectly suitable metaphor to add panache to the scenes:
- "He had time for a quick bath in the common tub down the hall. Had to be sure all appropriate working parts - his wing tip and the two big bombs that hung from it - were clean and fresh if the evening's operation sortie was to be successful"
- "(Julie was) flying a little close formation with his wingtip which was already showing signs of getting airborne"
- "eager Garth whose wingtip was in full extension after being flown straight onto and flattened against the moving target of Julie's hard responsive belly"
- "I'd make your wingtip fly at a speed, a slow excruciatingly wet and sucking speed it's never flown before" (wait - what?)
- "(Jane Knight) What a gorgeous creature and, boy, did she ever know what to do with his wingtip and bombs."
-"Suddenly his bare wingtip - long, large and pulsing with his young blood - was in her caressing hands"
And FYI - yes, the first occurrence quoted above treats it as two words, the rest as one. Surely the book's only typo.
And in case the flying metaphors soar over your head, he reassuringly uses a standard lock-and-key example like so: "Peters did not fumble with the room key. He thrust it directly into the lock, penetrating fully and turning it immediately".
Doors in London are notoriously hard to open.