“Young Man, Old Empire, Bad War”

This review was written by Gahan Wilson and printed in the October 12, 1986 edition of The New York Times.

“Young Man, Old Empire, Bad War”

GOING SOLO. By Roald Dahl. Illustrated. 208 pp. New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux. $14.95.

I REMEMBER that when I was very young and curious, with my mouth doubtless as open as a nestling’s, I asked an older cousin of mine what it had been like to fight in World War II (he had been involved in many epic events, including the Normandy landing), and he told me it had been “all right.” When I would not let it go at that, he tried to put me off with some trivial story about a street urchin selling him a fake Swiss watch in North Africa, and when I still persisted, he took me out and bought me an ice cream bar from a Good Humor man, and that finally shut me up.

Americans make, by and large, pretty good soldiers, but though they may acquit themselves commendably on the battlefield, they seem to lack entirely, at least in my experience, the knack of passing on a coherent, let alone stylish, account of their serious military doings. They usually will not, in fact, tell you anything at all about their activities, and if you press them, they tend either – depending on their personalities – to clam up and glower or to mutter amiably about peripheral and, they hope, distracting events. The British, though famous for their reticence in many other respects, do not appear to suffer from any hesitancy about sharing accounts of wartime doings. Quite the contrary – they obviously have a national talent for spinning tales of battles.

Roald Dahl has written stories for adults and children, including the chilling “Switch Bitch,” “James and the Giant Peach” and “Boy,” the first volume of his autobiography. “Going Solo” is essentially a compendium of war stories taken from his experiences in the Royal Air Force. It is a kind of nonstop demonstration of expert raconteurship, and it’s easy to imagine the comfortable, smoky pub about you or the feel of the huge leather chairs in the club as he goes on about the Operations room at Elevsis airdrome or the time in Greece he ate black olives and drank retsina with a friend and fellow pilot who did not survive to become the Earl of Leicester while the two of them watched men burn to death in Argos Bay. This steady tale spinning might, to tell the truth, be a little bit too much if it were unalloyed, but the author has wisely and cleverly inserted quotes from the actual adventurer, his younger self, in don’t-you-worry letters he wrote to his worried mother. These, together with many photos taken with his trusty Zeiss Super Ikonta (eventually stolen by a peasant) and pages from his pilot’s logbook (Mr. Dahl must be quite a pack rat), leaven things considerably.

The book actually starts with something even more nostalgic to the British heart than the horrors of World War II. It begins in 1938 with an account of the last days of the British Empire, before it was in any doubt whatsoever, as seen through the eyes of the 22-year-old Dahl, a brand-new employee of the Shell Company taking the steamer Mantola to Dar es Salaam, Tanganyika. He traveled with leathery professionals who had all gone mad, or at least been driven to extreme eccentricity by the rigors of building and maintaining the colonies. (One wonders what sort of mental cases the looming Third Reich Empire would have produced had it survived and thrived.) Mr. Dahl’s telling of his fellow passengers’ “Alice in Wonderland” doings is highly amusing, particularly his explanation of why his cabinmate, U. N. Savory (“I could hardly believe those initials when I first saw them on his trunk”), carefully sprinkled Epsom salts on the shoulders of his dinner jacket. Mr. Dahl’s account of colonial life itself manages to touch on almost all the reliable themes. There are a number of Africans, of whom the quaintest and most colorful is MISTER SHANKERBAI GANDERBAI OF BAGOMOYO, SELLER OF DECORTICATORS (a decorticator converts sisal leaves into rope fibers, if you want to be one up at your next cocktail party). There is a first-rate lion story, together with an excellent bonus green mamba one, and there is an account of how sympathetic and understanding Mr. Dahl was toward his “boy,” loaned him by the Shell Company as a personal servant, that ends with the horrible, pointless murder of a German national when Hitler’s war breaks out at last.

Mr. Dahl joined the R.A.F. in Kenya, and aside from his basic flight training in a tiny, Gipsy-engined biplane with the delightful name of Tiger Moth, his personal war, in spite of the game face he puts on it, seems to have been an extended series of botches and bad decisions. His comanding officer sent him flying off over the Western Desert in the wrong direction to a near-fatal crash. At the end there was the dazzingly bad strategy of the air defense of Greece – 15 Hurricane fighters, of which Pilot Officer Dahl’s was one, were expected to fend off and destroy at least 1,000 German fighters and bombers. The brave young British heroes failed, of course; most of them were killed; most of their beloved planes were burned to cinders (“It took somebody thousands of hours to build this!” a mechanic says, stroking a Hurricane lovingly with his greasy hand); and almost everyone concerned knew all along that the whole thing was a stupid waste.

Those evenings I listened to war stories from my British friends didn’t go on so long as this celebration, and maybe it’s better if you’ve had a few drinks. By the time I got done with the book, and it’s not a long one, I really had had too much of brave young men being killed and of the wonderful machines that were used to kill them, and I was glad it was all over.

Except, of course, it isn’t.