Rocket Man Review by Author Philip Spires: Superb

Apr 25, 2013 by

Rocket Man by William Hazelgrove is not a good novel: it is unequivocally a great one. Many writers attempt to portray contemporary society, mixing social comment and empathetic life stories with expressions and interpretations of culture, but few succeed. Often the result is an admixture of what the writer wants to say carried on a vehicle of plot too flimsy to carry it, or a merely impressionistic view of events devoid of significance. In the case of Rocket Man, William Hazelgrove’s portrayal of contemporary society is so convincing, so perfectly apposite that the reader almost becomes a participant. The author mixes tragedy and humour, wit and literary invention, observation and opinion, reality and farce into a completely seamless portrayal of competitive suburbia, where battles can be fought across driveways, as ongoing wars are pursued in the lounge. Domestic reality becomes fiction, but presents a picture that is almost more real than fact. Rocket Man is thus an almost complete literary achievement.
Dale Hammer is himself a novelist. His books, once critically acclaimed, he tells us, have fallen from fashion and are now also largely out of print. Their existence can be traced to thumbed copies on Dale’s shelves and via increasingly oblique references on the internet, where they lie in lists, second hand and largely unwanted. Dale devotes himself full time to writing, but nothing new has emerged from his disaster area of a study for some time and even those who were once enthusiastic about his work have now either forgotten it or grown old enough now to worry only about themselves.
Dale is forty-six and is married to Wendy. Like all Americans, he has his dream, as Wendy has hers. They have two children and do not always see eye-to-eye. Dale Junior is ten, and Angela, five. Dale Junior likes his sports and his Boy Scouts, but seems to do less well at school than he or his parents would like. Angela usually has her own way, but reality often interrupts the dream, it seems. Wendy sometimes seems rather oblivious to crises and seems to defer to her husband whenever possible, especially when she is looking for someone to blame. Dale, however, usually lacks competence, despite his apparently limitless faith in his own abilities, abilities that others often find hard to recognise. Though he tries hard, he is often ever so slightly misdirected by himself and thus accomplishes things he did not quite intend, usually to his detriment.
The title refers to Dale’s adopted responsibility to act the role of chief launcher of the traditional rockets at an upcoming Boy Scout jamboree. It’s a major social event in Charleston’s suburbia, as it nestles newly-developed and mock-rurally near Chicago. And Rocket Man is a role that commands respect, and thus demands competence. Thus there are doubts, not least within Dale himself, as to whether this year’s choice of operative is quite up to the task.
Dale and Wendy are really city types, used to Oak Park, an area that has its share of problems, safety-issues, drug use, poor schools and the like. As an inner city, it’s as stereotypical as Charleston might pretend to the suburban, the latter boasting exaggerated safety, smart cars and overtly expressed community that is really a skin around a scrum of individual competition. Wendy in particular wanted the move, preferring something more substantial now that the kids were growing up, something more respectable, perhaps, now that she and Dale had achieved middle age, a term they themselves probably shunned until its sheer inevitability finally demanded acceptance. Overall, the suburbs offered a salubrious safety, a state that Wendy came to desire, a state that years ago she had rejected when she married Dale, believing that life with him would never be dull. So off to Charleston they went, to a big house with a big mortgage, an aging SUV and neighbours who at least appear to claim greater stability than the Hammers. Dale was to write full time, while Wendy pursued her own work. To make ends meet, or at least to bring them a little closer, Dale took up brokering on commission. This meant dealing with the public.
Dale’s father turns up. He has been thrown out again. He has also lost his job. Dale Senior seems almost to have walked straight out of John Updike, and rabbits around the single lady across the road, as his Jaguar is repossessed. The other son, Elliott and his African American wife appear, sincerely concerned about dad now having to live over a garage. They, as academics, have more space and comfort. Dale’s in-laws also visit, and open war breaks out as attitudes and assumptions clash, but only as a result of the best of intentions, which really are just euphemisms for self-interest.
So what is so special about Rocket Man that merits such high praise? The answer to that is nothing. Like all great achievements, Rocket Man raises the mundane to the special by encouraging us to participate. These characters could pontificate about the state of the economy, about contemporary values, about the nature of society, but they don’t have to because they are alive, and we, for a while, live alongside them, sharing their concerns, concerning ourselves with them. We thus become participants in their lives and the experience is so real that we, ourselves, experience the issues that affect them. The result is a riveting and enlightening read. It owes much to Updike, with the raw sex replaced by liberal helpings of wit, humour and irony. Rocket Man is without a shadow of doubt a masterpiece of modern literature and deserves to fly very high indeed.

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Born in Richmond, Virginia, and carted back and forth between Virginia and Baltimore, I blame my rootless, restless personality on my father. He was and is a traveling salesman with a keen gift of gab, great wit, a ready joke, and could sell white tennis shoes to coal miners. [read more...]

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