As I was reading God of Speed, I tried not to think of the episode of The Simpsons that parodies Howard Hughes, when Mister Burns opens a casino, secludes himself on the top floor and becomes a germaphobe. Because it’s hard to engage with a novel when you’re picturing its protagonist like this:
Unfortunately for old Howard, there’s a fair bit of truth to this impersonation. He spent the last ten years of his life crippled by obsessive compulsive disorder, living in hotels and fleeing the tax collector. He was waited on by an army of Mormons, who were the only people he believed he could trust, and to whom he wrote instructions that were so exact they specified the number of Kleenex to use when picking up his hearing-aid, or how many inches to park from the curb.
For much of his life, though, Hughes was the king of the world, and he looked like this:
Handsome bastard. In addition to being really, really good looking, Hughes had more money than God, a Hollywood studio, multiple world air-speed records and bedded most of the famous, beautiful women of his era, including Katherine Hepburn, Bette Davis, Ava Gardner and Gene Tierney, to name but a few.
So what the hell happened to him? In God of Speed, Luke Davies attempts to get inside Hughes’ head to answer this question and explore the genius and madness of this icon of the 20th century.
The novel is narrated by Hughes himself as he lays in bed on the night of 9 June 1973, three years before his death. He has summoned an old friend, Jack Real, to London to take him on his first flight in 15 years. Giddy and scared, not to mention hepped-up on a cocktail of drugs, Hughes can’t sleep, wondering if he will be able to go through with his plan and thinking about his life, and how he will present it to Jack.
Davies, writing in accessible but poetic prose, immerses himself in this unconventional character study. His Hughes is a monster born of the excesses of the 20th century, with a towering ego, an addict’s skill for self-deception and a complete lack of remorse.
Any hardship in his life – the death of his mother and father in quick succession, airplane crashes, marriage failures – are swept away by the extravagance that is always within easy reach. His greatest tragedy is Katherine’ Hepburne’s rejection of his marriage proposal, and this impacts him because he takes it as an insult, depriving him of what he feels are his dues after achieving the round the world air-speed record in ‘38.
He sees national calamity, such as World War II or the assassination of JFK, as opportunities to seek profit or political advantage. His ruthlessness, and his ability to justify it to himself, (not to mention his twisted sense of humour) is perhaps best characterised by the following passage:
“Flush riveting? I invented it, Jack. Every knob, every protuberance, every obstacle to progress: Begone, I said.
You never saw Jean Harlow’s Venusian mound after that time she clear-felled the bracken with my razor, but let’s just say she would have met with no wind resistance either.
Because everything that gets in the way of the wind, or anything else, is expendable.
… What I wanted to say, after all the noise died down, was simple, and easy, and pure.
That the world’s magnificence was enriched by a new beauty: the beauty of speed. And I played no small party in that.”
But Hughes is given some depth by the sad yearning and emptiness that seems to drive him:
“I had always been exhausted but I was fifteen years or more exhausted when I thought that love, or Katie, would slow things down. Looking back now I see that all things move slowly if at all, that zero is the number toward which all things cluster, that stasis is the condition, that it is only the mind that screens it all so fast and runs the frames together, and that events cascaded, yes of course, it goes without saying, but that the inside of myself somehow consistently eluded me. Meaning I had no sense of space.”
Davies succeeds in capturing his narrator’s broken, drug-addled mind: Hughes rambles off track and repeats himself, revealing his obsessions and his tendency to get “stuck in a loop”; the short chapters reflect his ravaged attention span; and the non-linear narrative and confusion over the sequence of events highlight the decay of his mind.
However, the novel’s greatest strength is also its greatest weakness. The author’s slavish commitment to character comes at the cost of fictional convention, making for a sometimes flat narrative peopled by two dimensional characters.
Hughes privilege and hubris mean that he never has to overcome adversity.
“I didn’t always know what I was doing – behind the camera or behind the controls – but I didn’t think it really mattered. I had so much money and so much energy, no mistake was beyond fixing”.
Davies recounts Hughes’ many achievements – his movies, his sexual conquests, his world records, his financial success – but he never tells us about the challenges he overcame. Without hardships, it’s all just bragging – and bragging is boring to listen to.
Hughes deliberately avoids feelings: the only people he considers real apart from himself seem to be his mother and Katherine Hepburne. The starlets he beds are barely fleshed out, little more than names that invoke the glamour of yesteryear. The male characters, too, are never given voice or tangible description. This is, no doubt, supposed to indicate how little regard Hughes had for the vast majority of people – but it doesn’t make one engage with a text when you can’t empathise with any of the secondary characters, especially considering how deliberately unlikable the protagonist is.
There are alot of sex scenes in the book, too, and while anticipation of sex can be a good driver of plot, it’s a notoriously difficult subject to write about. In God of Speed, it is gratuitous and often cringeworthy: sometimes I imagines Davies wracking his brain, trying to figure out a new way to describe sex with x starlet.
The novel is at its worst it is recounting amusing anecdotes about the rich and famous. If I wanted to hear about the zany adventures of celebrities, I’d pick up an issue of New Idea. There are also times when Davies seems to be trudging through the obligatory events of Hughes biography while contributing little to the story or themes.
I don’t doubt that Davies was aware of the effect his creation’s flaws would have on the reader. After all, the novel is about Hughes considering how to present his life to someone he wants to impress.
But I’m not letting the author off the hook that easily. Davies pick and chose in assembling Hughes’ character and the events of his life: he could just as easily have committed his imagination writing a novel with a bit more conflict.
There was, I felt, room to give Hughes more depth. To perhaps show how his humanity was subsumed by excess, since that seems to be the moral of the story. There is still so much about the character that is a mystery. Why, for instance, did he let himself be pressured into his first disastrous marriage by an aunt who is barely mentioned? Showing Hughes corruption would not have taken away from how much of a monster he becomes. If anything, it would have added to it. This is complicated by the fact that the narrator is an old man, long past the age of epiphany, but recounting events without self awareness is achieved by authors such as Kazuo Ishiguro.
Despite all this criticism, I have to say that I enjoyed God of Speed much more the second time around, when I could just enjoy the excellent character work without expecting the plot to progress in the way a more conventional novel would. And while there was room for improvement, there are times when God of Speed, like its subject, soars. Sorry. Couldn’t resist.