The Man Who Ate the 747
Sometimes “literary fables” make me sad. They make me wonder if there are grown-ups out there who can’t let themselves be seen reading science fiction or fantasy or – heaven forbid – romance, so when they happen upon a bit of moderately imaginative storytelling wrapped up in a dustcover that looks respectable, they’re all over it. They never know what they’re missing. The Man Who Ate the 747 is such a romantic fable. It is pleasant and competent, but it elicited no strong emotions from me.
For his entire adult life, J.J. Smith has worked as a verifier for the Guinness Book of World Records. He travels the world to time the Longest Kiss competition in Paris and measure the longest fingernails. When he’s not on the road, he’s quoting from his encyclopedic recall of record-setting trivia. His life is flat and empty, and his job’s on the skids.
Then an anonymous kid tips J.J. off to a man in Superior, Nebraska, who is eating an entire airplane for love. Such a spectacular record could be the break that J.J. is looking for, so after some investigation he hastens to check it out.
Sure enough, Wally Chubb is steadily ingesting his way through a downed 747 that landed on his property. (The plane was unloaded and the crew walked away from the accident, so eating the remains doesn’t have the ghoulish aspect you might imagine.) Wally seeks recognition from only one person, a woman he’s loved since childhood. Willa Wyatt edits (and delivers) the town newspaper, and she’s never been interested in Wally, despite his increasingly outlandish efforts to attract her attention.
The neighbors have been resolutely ignoring the horrible shriek of Wally’s souped-up wood chipper for years, but they’re glad enough to hop on the publicity bandwagon as J.J. brings national media attention to Wally’s quest. The mechanics of how Wally eats the plane, especially the nigh-indestructible Black Box, are the funniest details in the book. But complications ensue when J.J. takes a good look at Willa and begins to fall for her himself.
The result is sweet enough, and the spare prose (spare like Paul Harvey, not Ernest Hemingway) makes for a quick read. The problem is, there isn’t a whole lot of there there; the book is folksy but lightweight. There are no major insights into the nature of love, which seems to be the book’s main goal. The characters are pleasant but forgettable. The humor is good-natured but never remarkable. The aftermath of 747-eating leads several characters to make profound changes in their lives, but there’s no convincing internal or external reason why any of them should have stayed in their ineffectual holding patterns for upwards of 20 years apiece.
If you’re a fan of folksy humor and want a breezy read, you might give this one a whirl. If you want to be transported into a rich, magical experience, however, I’d look elsewhere.