Inspired, perhaps, by his own World War II flying experiences for the Army Air Corps, James Dickey’s novel Alnilam
is set in the fictional town of Peckover adjoining a military airfield near Fayetteville, North Carolina. The central character, Frank Cahill, officially notified of the accidental flying death of his son, Joel, whom he has never seen, journeys to the airbase to meet the officers and aviation cadets.
is not divided into chapters or major parts. All the events center around Frank Cahill, recently blind from diabetes, and his quest to find out about his son and the manner of his death. Lengthy passages of the novel are set in parallel columns reflecting darkness and light, the bold left type reflecting Cahill’s internal sensations and thoughts, and the right side the objective narrative of speech and events.
opens with an interesting account of Cahill’s attempt to find his way out of a boardinghouse in the middle of a winter night to relieve himself. He is accompanied by Zack, his faithful, untrained dog. This hallucinatory opening is followed by flashbacks of Cahill’s life, fleshing out some biographical details and clarifying his present situation. He is the owner of Willow Plunge Amusement Park in Atlanta. Nineteen years ago, his pregnant wife, Florence, left him forever. He has never once seen or contacted his son, Joel. Cahill’s blindness, the result of the sudden onset of adult diabetes, occurred less than four months ago.
The novel’s events occur within a week in January, 1943. Cahill has just received a military telegram inviting him to the airbase where his son was training. The military cadets are graduating, and they want Cahill to attend the ceremonies. On a selfish whim, he decides to go and arrives with Zack in Peckover, which adjoins the base. He is enthusiastically welcomed by Colonel Vernon Hoccleve, the military commanding officer, who allows him to meet with officers, friends, and fellow cadets—anyone, in short, who knew Joel. Cahill questions all of them about his son. Cahill also meets Hannah Pelham, Joel’s wild girlfriend. She reveals Joel to be somewhat sadistic. Hannah seduces a somewhat surprised Cahill.
Soon a contradictory picture of Joel emerges from the various exchanges. Joel, it turns out, was a charismatic, although secretive and mystical individual. He founded a strange cult among his fellow students named "Alnilam," which is Arabic for "string of pearls." The name comes from the middle star in the belt of the constellation Orion. Joel believed that man and flying machine were extensions of one another, and he inculcated this belief through cryptic statements that his followers have elevated to the status of gospel.
Cahill’s investigative mystery deepens when he discovers that cadet-pilot Joel’s plane came down because of a downdraft while he was swooping over a brush fire. He was pulled out of his plane by a farmer and taken to a farmhouse. While the farmer fought the blaze, Joel escaped back into the fire. He then made his way to a river and disappeared forever. The investigating officials were sure his body would show up soon.
Cahill does not share their confidence; neither do the Alnilam cadets, nor McClintock McCaig, Joel’s flight trainer and friend. McCaig manages to get Cahill into an airplane and takes him for a flight so he can better understand Joel’s love of flying. Through it all, Cahill expresses curiosity but no grief. He is neither excited nor repelled by his observations and discoveries.
Cahill’s presence begins to have a negative effect at the base. Zack bites one of the cadets and attacks and kills a pack of dogs. Colonel Hoccleve orders Cahill to leave the base and not attend the ceremonies. The Alnilam group persuades Cahill to remain. They reveal to him Joel’s secret philosophy and the son’s prediction of his own disappearance and the appearance of his father. The cadets, allied with others at various bases, are planning a special surprise at graduation. Cahill enters the base secretly and wanders onto the airfield when chaos breaks loose. The cadets have initiated an insurrection by destroying airplanes, leading to the death of an older pilot and Zack’s decapitation. The novel ends with Cahill returning home and asking Hannah to come live with him. She refuses. Cahill boards his bus, realizing he has come to terms with himself.