By Marty Mulrooney
Underground Airlines is the latest novel from award-winning writer Ben H. Winters, author of the Last Policeman trilogy (The Last Policeman, Countdown City, World of Trouble). An alternative history novel set in the present day, there’s one key difference to the world as we know it – slavery still exists.
When we were done on the phone I was feeling low and mean, which is how I always felt after talking to Mr Bridge. Certain emotions bubbling up in my stomach, close to my throat. Certain kinds of memories, threatening to emerge from the closet, rattling their chains. As always. I flicked away the butt of the shitty Pakistani cigarette and stared out from the darkness of the balcony into the greater darkness of the parking lot, feeling as if I barely existed at all.
Victor has been free since he was fourteen years old. He is now approaching forty. But the truth is, he’s never been truly free at all. He lives in a world where Lincoln was assassinated before he ever became president, the Civil War never took place, and slavery still in exists in the four Southern states known as the Hard Four. Victor is an African American bounty hunter, his skin colour – along with sharp intellect and the ability to hide in plain sight – giving him the ability to go deep undercover. He works for the U.S. Marshals Service, tracking down escaped fugitives running from the law. One kind in particular: slaves.
The premise of The Last Policeman – What’s the point in solving murders if we’re all going to die soon, anyway? – was brilliant, unique and executed to perfection. Any author would be considered lucky to have just one truly unique story idea throughout their entire writing career but with Underground Airlines, Ben H. Winters shows no signs of slowing down. He offers a simple premise with incredible potential: What if it’s just another day in America, except slavery still exists?
He closed his eyes. He thought I was gonna kill him, right there. I was glad. I was tight with rage. My rib-cage felt like a fist, clenched around my heart. The sun had gone down. There were no lights in the parking lot. The moon was coming up, pale and disinterested.
“What were you fighting for, Slim?”
He looked down. Moustache drooping down. He whispered. “Slavery.”
I shot him in the knee.
Victor is a difficult character to pin down, his relationship with the reader conspiratorial from the outset. He outwardly portrays himself as pathetic, desperate for help from a priest who may have connections to the Underground Airlines, an abolitionist organisation that specialises in transporting escaped slaves to freedom. Inside he’s cold as steel, calculating, a far cry from the face of grief he wears like a mask. When the tears come, it’s hard to tell if they’re real. As the story continues to unravel he plays the role of many men and occasionally, very rarely, his true self bubbles to the surface, full of rage and violence, full of fear and regret. A young boy and his older brother, plantation slaves, whispering in the darkness.
It’s fascinating to read Victor’s internal monologue. He’s spent so long pretending to be other people that his own identity is buried deep, reduced to only a murmur. It has to be, otherwise he could never do his job. A job he despises. A job he loves. Being so effective at something so evil is destroying him from the inside. He’s losing himself. His latest case for the U.S. Marshals involves a runner known as Jackdaw, and his case file is a goddamn mess. The subject is known to have intended to remove himself to Indianapolis, Indiana. Even for a man who instinctively registers black people in one of 172 delineated varietals of African American skin tone, detailed in the U.S. Marshal Service field service guide (Victor himself is “moderate charcoal, brass highlights, #41”)… something isn’t right.
“I will look into it.”
“What does that mean?”
“It means I will look into it.”
And there it was: for the first time in the years I had known him, except of course I had never known him at all, Mr Bridge had raised his voice. A change in tone almost but not quite below the level of notice. He had – insisted. He had emphasized.
The world of Underground Airlines is realised in incredible detail, fascinating to read even when it’s truly uncomfortable. It should be uncomfortable. Slavery may be abolished in our world, but racism may never truly die. It’s frightening how plausible and believable Ben H. Winter’s alternate reality America really is. Not because there is an overabundance of passages detailing in minute detail the inner workings of slavery (instead the details are drip-fed, tastefully), but because, in this world, it’s accepted even by those who disagree. Here, the enslavement of our fellow human beings because of their skin colour is still a way of American life. It’s normal – and therein lies the true horror.
The central mystery of who Jackdaw is and why his case file is a mess is secondary to the spiritual journey Victor takes through this nightmare mirror image of contemporary America. Against his better judgement, he befriends a white woman named Martha Flowers and her young biracial son, Lionel. It’s a decision that will jeopardise his entire mission, but could prove to be the key to true freedom. The story of Underground Airlines contains a strong central mystery with some incredibly satisfying twists and turns, yet the final passages move almost too fast; enough groundwork has been laid by this point to justify slowing things down and soaking in the details. It’s a minor complaint.
The ground in this narrower passage was packed earth, slick and gently giving like clay. I was both of us. I was myself and I was also the person at the bottom, seeing my own shadow grow larger. I was the person hearing me coming. The sound was ancient and reverberant, the click and scrape of heels on concrete steps; the sound of the heavy hand above you, ready to fall.
In the introduction to Underground Airlines, Ben H. Winters shares his fears about writing the story. The issue of race is after all too controversial, the relevant history is too painful, and what right do I have, as a white writer, to take it under consideration? It’s understandable, but thank goodness these initial reservations were moved beyond. Underground Airlines is a powerful, often uncomfortable novel that isn’t always easy to read, but is never anything less than utterly engrossing. It’s ultimately a story about hope. Like the very best alternative history/speculative fiction novels, it reveals another world before making you take a closer look at the one you live in. Everything can happen. Everything is possible.
9.5 OUT OF 10
Underground Airlines will be published in hardback by Century (an imprint of Penguin Random House UK) on 14th July 2016 in the UK, with a RRP of £12.99. Thank you to Penguin for sending me a proof copy.
It will also be published in hardback by Mulholland Books (an imprint of Little, Brown and Company) on 5th July 2016 in the US, with a RRP of $26.00. Thank you to Mulholland Books for sending me a digital copy at a later date.