Association for Mormon Letters
Book Review by Gene Mahalko
The front cover of *Falcons and Seagulls* is a hand drawn map of the Utah west desert, Great Salt Lake to the northeast, restricted government test ranges and a Goshute reservation to the south. I-80 is also designated the Dwight D. Eisenhower Hwy, a name rarely used anymore, indicating that the map was drawn around the late 1960s. Callao, which I had heard of, and Ibapah, which I had not heard of, were marked. Ibapah does exist, and in fact is the headquarters of the Confederated Tribes of the Goshute Reservation. It is tiny and very remote, sixty miles due south of Wendover, UT.
All this matters because the novel is about place, time, and culture. The desert test ranges involve the cold-war culture, Howard Hughes, clandestine military research projects, and money controlled by Hughes and the Mormon Church, sloshing between military projects, planned reservation casinos, and corporate entities.
Our protagonist, Solomon “Solly” Fairchild, is a descendant of LDS President John Taylor. He was born a Utah Mormon, but raised in Massachusetts. He became involved with the Society of Friends, was educated in eastern universities. Solly shares all these traits with the author. Beyond that, I’m not sure what is autobiographical, and what is fiction. In fact, that was a constant question for me as I read the book. What is real, what is fiction, and what is plausible, though unproven? As I mentioned, Ibapah is real, as is the Goshute reservation. Teddy Kolleck, the legendary long-time mayor of Jerusalem who visits BYU in the novel, is real, though I don’t know if that visit actually happened. Howard Hughes is not really buried at the BYU Center in Jerusalem. At least, if he is, there will be a lot of surprised people in Houston!
So, some is fact. Some fiction is thinly veiled reality, some is cut from whole cloth. It is interesting to try to figure out which is which.
Solly lost his parents at an early age when his parents died in the sinking of the Andrea Doria off the coast of Massachusetts. He was adopted into the Fairchild family, of Fairchild Electronics, both competitors and collaborators with some of Howard Hughes’ companies. He is raised as a Quaker, though his Utah family keep him well aware of his Mormon roots. He becomes a lawyer, and he, an uncle and cousin work for Howard Hughes in the late 1960s and early 1970s.
Fast forward to the middle aughts. Mitt Romney has saved the Olympics. Howard Hughes is long dead. Uncle Rory is in declining health, and wants to turn his journals and some information over to Solly. Just before Solly returns to Utah to see Rory, the cousin he and Rory worked with back in the day, out hiking and camping near Ibapah for who knows why, is shot and killed.
And the story goes from there. Solly’s birth family is Mormon second tier royalty, thanks to having John Taylor in the family tree. They know people in the hierarchy, and can arrange meetings. A fictional member of the First Presidency uses the Mormon equivalent of diplomat-speak to maneuver Solly away from information the Church would like to remain hidden. The author of the book speaks fluent Mormonese.
Besides the Hughes-Mormon-Israel theme, there are two other themes running through the novel. Solly is something of a reconversion project for his religiously well connected and wealthy Utah family, and Solly and other family members get to deal with that. And there are romantic involvements, including with some Mormons from his past. His marriage is failing, his daughter has just started college, and an old girlfriend reappears. He gets to negotiate so-so Mormons, True Believers, who gets what guest bedroom, the sexual obstacle course of temple garments, on top of deciding if his marriage is over or not. I found the plot twists and turns jarring sometimes, and the treatment of the topics felt superficial to me, but it wasn’t the main theme, so where to draw the line is a judgment call. One minor irritation I had with the book was that I found perhaps several dozen typos. They weren’t related to historical content, they were just glitches.
Each chapter has a name appended to it. Most are Old Testament names as are the names of main characters Solomon and his sister Leah. I am a little rusty on my Old Testament stories, so I didn’t connect the symbolism in most cases, but if you are better at it than I, you might enjoy the “why is this name here” game. I did guess that in the chapter named Lucifer, bad stuff was likely to happen.
A road trip to Ibapah is on my to do list.