Pensive in the wake of 9/11, a young man launches a mission to reunite his beloved grandfather, an American bombardier, with Luddie, the woman who saved him during WWII. Armed only with the address on the back of an old photograph and his grandfather’s memories, the young man begins writing letters to Luddie.
Undaunted by her lack of response, the narrator travels to Poland with his girlfriend and grandfather. As they come closer to finding the site where the bombardier was shot down, the letters to Luddie become more personal—and the saga of a family with a long and storied history emerges.
Beautifully orchestrated and eloquently original, this is a tale of soldiers and saviors, of burning and bombing, of fathers and sons and brothers and lovers—and of what we find when we dare to revisit the past.
“A rewarding experience.” —Chicago Sun-Times
“Nichols handles beautifully the hidden meanings in old family tales heard a hundred times . . . The novel often reads like a piece of music that is wonderfully original.” —Publishers Weekly
“A dramatically off-kilter debut novel about wars and the men who fight them . . . We see the Bombardier, an elderly Rotarian and former mayor of a small Midwestern town, rediscovering his youthful memories. His grandson’s bewilderment over what to do about the 9/11 attacks highlights the differences between then and now. There’s a lot of meaty material here.” —Kirkus Reviews
|Publisher:||Coffee House Press|
|Sold by:||Barnes & Noble|
|File size:||3 MB|
About the Author
Born in Iowa in 1979, Travis Nichols now lives in Chicago. An editor at the Poetry Foundation, his writing has appeared in The Village Voice, The Believer, Details, Paste, Seattle Post-Intelligencer, and The Stranger. Off We Go Into the Wild Blue Yonder is his first novel.
Read an Excerpt
I don't remember much about the first thing I killed, but I remember I killed it with a knife. I cut it open with a knife and said, "I want the guts! I want the guts! I want the guts! I want the guts!" My older brother turned green beside me. It was a fish. The knife I killed it with had a white handle. The white handle had small, blue marks on it.
My brother and I had been fishing in a pond by the Bombardier's house. Cows and dogs strolled by with their different tongues while we stood in the grass with our lines in the water. Neither of us had ever caught a fish before. We had fished and fished and caught nothing but water. But I caught that fish, and when I caught it, I didn't look at it, hold it, or study it. I just cut it open.
There is nothing in my mind now about the fish — what it looked like, what it felt like, or what it smelled like — there is only the knife, and my brother turning green, and me saying, "I want the guts!" over and over again.
Since that fish, I've killed a few other fish, plenty of flies, moths, beetles, worms, hermit crabs, fireflies, and a mouse.
I haven't killed any people, Luddie, but it's true I have come close. I've come close by holding my step-dad's gun to my brother's temple and pulling the trigger.
I was just a kid then, curious and alone and with my brother who was curious and alone too.
I didn't know if the chamber held a bullet and I didn't know what it would mean if it did, but I pulled the trigger. "On or off?" I said to my brother and then I pulled the trigger before he could answer.
"On," I said.
And then I put the barrel to my own temple, and I squeezed the little metal tongue to prove there was nothing. Nothing at all.
"On or off?" I said again, and again the hollow click sounded.
"On," I said.
Would it have been better off? To light up my eyes from inside, to feel my little brains go black?
My brother punched me in the head and called me a word I didn't know, and my brains didn't go black at all.
My brains didn't go black at all, and my brother and I lived, and later that same year we killed other things with pleasure.
Ants, mice, spiders, fish. A swarm of horseflies had filled our room.
I remember the room was dark and heavy with flies and we swatted them out of the air with flyswatters. Giddy with killing, we swatted them so hard they splattered against the walls and the ceiling, and by the time the horseflies stopped flying around the room, black and red smudges covered the walls and the ceiling, and sweat poured off of my brother and me.
We turned all the flies off in wet splats and bursts.
Another time, my brother and I walked up and down the beach, taking turns hitting hermit crabs into the ocean with a piece of driftwood.
When it was my turn, my brother tossed a hermit crab into the air and I swung the driftwood stick, smashing the shell, sending its pieces one way and the little crab hurtling out over the ocean the other way.
I remember one of those crabs' claws frantically scratching at the sky after I hit it with the stick. I'm sure I killed that one, Luddie, and I remember it didn't seem to want to die.
Maybe I'm forgetting something. Maybe I'm forgetting something I've killed, or something that has died and taken part of my story with it.
It's a mystery, like waking up in the middle of the night and saying something deadly to the person in bed with you and then falling back to sleep.
In the morning, when the person in bed with you tells you the deadly thing you said, you know the deadly thing, but you don't remember saying it. Your story has become confused, but you don't know how. You don't know how because you don't remember saying that deadly thing, a thing you would never say to anyone. All you remember is the sleep, the black wool of it, and because that is all you remember, your story becomes confused.
I don't want my story to become confused, Luddie.
I want my story to be clear, so I think I need to push past the black wool of sleep.
I need to push past the black wool of sleep and I need to remember the deadly things, both the said and the unsaid, but I'm not sure how to do it.
It might help, I think, if you write back and tell me what you remember about what you've killed.
It might help, I think, if you write back and tell me what you remember about what you've lived through.
In my dream, I am in the sky with the Bombardier. The earth has sent yellow ropes into the sky, and these ropes have reached through the clouds and circled our insides.
These ropes pull us down by our insides.
When the ropes return to earth, I know they will have metal, cloth, and bodies with them. When the ropes return to earth, I will let small animals lick the clouds from my arms and my legs and my spilled insides. But for now, in my dream, all is anticipation and rushing sky.
We're falling. The Bombardier and I.
In the rushing sky, the Bombardier turns to me and screams, "Where is the enemy?" I don't recognize this Bombardier who turns to me and screams, Luddie, and I don't know where the enemy is.
I am terrified.
It is 1944.
When I wake up from this dream, I feel wet black wool between my bones and muscle. I feel it in my sinuses and lungs. It leaves me clouded in my bed, as if I haven't fully fallen out of the sky, or as if I haven't fully fallen out of the dream, as if I'm still in the sky with the ropes around my insides.
I'm telling you, Luddie, because I want to know if you are in this dream, if you see the Bombardier turning to me, screaming, or if you ever dream the same dream. If I turn to you in your dream, or if you dream at all.
I know my story, and I could tell it to you, but my story is less important than the Bombardier's story. The Bombardier isn't only in my dream but in real life too. You know this. He has a story. I know some of his story, and you know some of his story too, so maybe we should tell each other what we know.
In time, will you tell me what you know?
Okay, then I will tell you what I know. I will tell the story that I know.
I know that the Bombardier was born in the Midwest. He was born in the Midwest between the wars. This is his story. He was born in the Midwest to a woman in a blue dress and a man with red hair. Between the wars, this man and this woman had three other boys in the house with the Bombardier, and the mother in the blue dress cooked and the man with red hair drank himself down the railroad line, away from the cooking, the blue dress, the house, the brothers, and the Bombardier.
Do you know this?
Do you know that away from their red-haired father, the brothers grew up and played baseball in fields of dead prairie grass in the Midwest? That none of them had red hair like their father, and that suited them fine?
"Have you seen him?" one brother asked the other.
"Nope," the other brother said, pushing a rock in the dirt with a stick.
"Hmm," said another brother.
The Bombardier hopped onto a rusted Buick that sat in the tall grass.
"Who wants a ride?" he asked his brothers.
He didn't know how to drive.
No one had taught him.
His father used to drive the Buick, but now his father was gone, and when he rode in the back of the Buick now he got sick from the swaying, so he always begged to stay home.
He shifted the gears and honked the horn in the grass. If he could drive the Buick, he thought, then he might not get sick.
I know this because the Bombardier himself told me, while teaching me how to drive and how to play baseball in dead fields in the Midwest. This is his story.
I know that some days in his story, the Bombardier went to school in the Midwest, between the wars, and other days he stayed home. I know he liked school, and he liked to read, so he went to school when he couldn't play baseball, when he didn't have chores to do.
I know in school he read Plato and then he read Aristotle.
I like to imagine that when he read Plato and when he read Aristotle, his brain felt like it had little arms and little legs. When he read, it felt like his brain flew with its little arms and little legs pointed straight out in the air against a strong, cold wind. I like to imagine the Bombardier liked the feeling.
I like to imagine that though he liked the feeling, he didn't know where his flying brain could go, so when he graduated from high school in the Midwest — it wasn't so hard — he became the easiest thing for him to become.
He became a salesman.
I know he sold shoes and he sold lots of them, so soon he left the Midwest and traveled down to the Southwest and up to New England selling, selling, selling.
If his brain couldn't fly by itself at least the rest of his body could take his brain along with it.
His body and his brain had traveled to a hotel in Arizona on December 7, 1941, and on December 8, 1941, he turned the radio on in his hotel there in Arizona.
The sound bounced off the bubbled wallpaper and the yellow lamp cord.
The radio in his hotel told the Bombardier that the Japanese had attacked America. The frenzied voices bounced off of the bubbled wallpaper and the yellow lamp cord and the Bombardier heard them.
Pearl Harbor had happened and the Bombardier heard about it over the radio.
On December 8, 1941, the Bombardier listened to the radio and put the last of his sample shoes into the corner of his paper suitcase. He shut his paper suitcase, and he put his hands on his knees. He went down to the lobby and picked up the black phone on the counter to call the airline. He asked the airline for a flight back home to the Midwest. He would stop selling shoes and join the armed services.
He was ready to fight, so he knew, in the Midwest or in the Southwest or in New England, he would join the armed services and go fight the Japanese and the Germans and the Italians, and that his three brothers would fight them too.
He was twenty-two.
I know they all have stories to tell, all the brothers, but they haven't told them to me, so I don't know what to tell you about them, Luddie. The Bombardier has told me his story, so I know it, and I know I am a part of it.
If you let me, I will tell the rest of the Bombardier's story to you, Luddie, though I don't know what of it you already know, or what of it is you. I don't even know where you are, Luddie, or where I could send this story to, but I believe I will find out soon enough, so I'm writing and writing to you. Please.
I know it's tempting to say two babies were born in 1944, two years later, well into the war, the bombs, the sky.
I know it's tempting to say one baby lived while the other baby died.
Even more tempting is to say both babies were born at the same time, on the same day, December 26, 1944, the day after that year's Christians celebrated the birth of the man who died for their sins.
It's tempting I know, but I think this temptation should be resisted for a truth more ordinary, that on that day, December 26, 1944, there were two United States airmen among many bombing the Nazi-filled fields in Eastern and Central Europe, and like any other day, two babies were born among many. Some of these babies lived and some of these babies died.
Some of the many United States airmen bombing Europe that day survived and returned to America. They got married to American girls and had American babies with those girls. As often happens, those American babies had other American babies, some of which lived and some of which died.
The American babies that lived are now old enough to have their own American babies, though some of these old-enough American babies haven't yet had their own babies, but they will, and some of them will live and some of them will die.
Some of the new babies will live to be the Bombardier's great-grand-babies, because he was one of the United States airmen who lived to go home and have babies. Some of the other ones did not live, or have any babies, or tell their stories to me, a grandbaby, or to you, Luddie.
Did you see any bombs on that day?
Do you have any babies?
I want to tell you the story of what happens to me, and I want you to understand, but I realize I know almost nothing about you except your name, and telling a story to someone you don't know is like praying to a God you don't understand.
I want to understand, Luddie.
I have seen a small black-and-white photograph with your name and your street written in black ink on the white backing, but I don't recognize the handwriting.
Maybe the handwriting is yours.
Maybe the photograph is of you.
In this photograph, you have black eyes and black hair, black dimples, a black dress, and black shadows under the white pearls around your white neck. You have white teeth and white skin. There is a soft, white light shining on you because it's a portrait, staged, yet you look natural, warm, motherly, like a miniature white mammal in a black velvet box.
I like to think that it is your street on the white backing, that it is your black handwriting.
What happens to me will happen in a few days, when Bernadette and I will fly from New England to meet the Bombardier in Chicago.
We're flying from New England to Chicago to give the Bombardier a present.
The present is a journey to Germany and then to Poland to see what, in 1944, was a dead field just outside Nazi territory, but now, in 2004, will surely be something else.
We are going to find something there in this present, Luddie, and I'm going to tell you all about it.
I'm going to tell you about it in these letters, and I'm going to tell you about it even if I never find you. I'm going to tell you about it even if you never write me back to tell me about your bombs or your babies.
I have a strange story I want to tell you.
I want to tell you this strange story before anything happens to me.
It is a strange story called "How I Want to Be 'Madame Psychosis.'" I'm going to tell you this strange story about wanting to be "Madame Psychosis" so if you don't want to know it just close your eyes and wait for the letter to be over, okay?
Here it goes.
One night when I was nineteen, I walked around the side streets of a city. I was on drugs, in the rain, amongst chimerical corridors I saw in every direction.
Down one chimerical corridor I ran my hands along a rainy wall and found a loose doorknob.
I pulled on it.
Already that night, I had seen a little man in a black-and-white suit tapping his hobnailed boot on a linoleum floor. I had seen a Mexican man with swirling round eyes telling me he had been evicted from the Garden of Eden. I had seen huge koi fish swimming up the walls of my brother's apartment into a red pool, and I had seen my own brain bleeding black on his hardwood floor.
The doorknob came off in my hand.
When the doorknob came off in my hand, something weird and white flashed up my arm, through my chest, and into my head.
This weird white thing scared me so badly I put the doorknob in the pocket of my army jacket and ran back to my brother's apartment, singing as loud as I could.
I sang and sang.
By the time I got to his apartment I wasn't singing but screaming and scaring everyone.
It sounds stupid now, Luddie, as I'm telling it, but then, when I was nineteen years old, on drugs that were supposed to make everything in the universe connect with me but instead made everything in the universe pursue me, I felt like I touched a ghost through that doorknob, or, that a ghost touched me.
That night, when it didn't sound so stupid, I told my brother about my ghost touching me through the doorknob. He took the doorknob from my trembling hand, and he put it in his fist. He put it in his fist and he punched me in the mouth with the doorknob in his fist.
The ghost filled me then and I fell on the floor full of weird white and trembling.
My brother looked down at me with crazy, drug-filled eyes and red hair and he laughed. He looked down at me on the floor and he said the doorknob had now been baptized.
It needed a new name.
My brother kissed the doorknob in his hand and said, "I dub thee 'Madame Psychosis' and I deposit thee into this pocket and I renounce thee."
He leaned down to me and dropped the doorknob in my pocket.
And then he laughed.
The rest of the night, so I could forget my correspondence with the ghost, my brother and I plunged into ritualistic drug adventures.
We wrote songs on the typewriter and covered each other with shaving cream.
I thought I might slip into insanity if I didn't forget my correspondence with the ghost, and so I made myself forget, and by the time I got back to my own cinderblock apartment on a small hill at six in the morning, I was singing again.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Off We Go Into the Wild Blue Yonder"
Copyright © 2010 Travis Nichols.
Excerpted by permission of COFFEE HOUSE PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
What People are Saying About This
“A rewarding experience. [Nichols’] sentences repeat and sit inside each other as a sort of Greek chorus that resonates through the book.”Chicago Sun-Times
“Nichols pulls the readers in . . . with breathtaking immediacy. . . . Off We Go Into the Wild Blue Yonder is both original and haunting.”Minneapolis Star Tribune
“Nichols handles beautifully the hidden meanings in old family tales heard a hundred times . . . the novel often reads like a piece of music that is wonderfully original.”Publishers Weekly
“A dramatically off-kilter debut novel about wars and the men who fight them . . . We see the Bombardier, an elderly Rotarian and former mayor of a small Midwestern town, rediscovering his youthful memories. His grandson's bewilderment over what to do about the 9/11 attacks highlights the differences between then and now. There's a lot of meaty material here.”Kirkus
“Travis Nichols locates the story in history, the pistol in epistolary. This is crushingly great, altogether original debut that reads like an incantation. I dare you to stop reading.”Ed Park
“This is a beautiful crackpot’s history of America. Travis Nichols takes us on a godly road trip through tobacco, love, and Boom Boom, landing us profoundly still at the world’s loneliest tourist trap. It’s a curious animal version of all those ‘I was looking for’ books because here the animal (the writing) actually changes when it reaches its destination. And happily Off We Go is also a book about a man loving women: ‘A toast,’ I say finally, ‘to the mother's side.’”Eileen Myles