Review: Wheels

Wheels

Arthur Hailey’s Wheels, published three years after Airport, turned its attention to the auto industry. While I’ve been a fairly new study to the aircraft industry, I’ve been interested in cars for much, much longer. So I knew I had to at least try this book. Especially because there are bizarrely few novels about the auto industry’s shenanigans. The biggest names are just this and The Betsy, which barely counts as a coherent book.

This is only somewhat more focused than Robbins’ scattershot, crazed novel. And it’s less focused than Airport. While that had a big broad soap opera and industry exposition that concluded with a rushed thriller plot, this is nothing but a Detroit drama. Or to be more specific, a series of Detroit dramas that range from car design to the struggles of a poor assembly line worker to the not-exactly-scintillating subject of middle class adultery.

I can respect this book for what it is-a lot of the research holds up, even if Hailey once again fell for futurist wonders being just around the corner (room-temperature superconductors in this case). It does work as a snapshot of an utterly rotten industry that was practically begging for the imports to come and whip it into shape (Published in 1971, the only reference to Japanese cars is a Subaru 360-esque “four wheeled motorcycle” that no one likes). But it doesn’t really work as a practical narrative.

Review: Airport

Airport

Author Arthur Hailey had a gimmick. He would find a certain field, research it massively, and then build a thriller and/or pop epic around said filed. One of his most famous and successful novels was 1968’s Airport, which inspired the movie series and the parody Airplane!. In it, an airliner is threatened by a both literal and figurative perfect storm of everything from horrible weather to a blocked runway to angry neighbors to a man determined to kill himself and blow up the plane-for the sake of insurance, nothing political.

Hailey spent a gargantuan amount of time on research, and it shows. I’ve always wondered if him being around in the age of the internet would have made his endeavours quicker and easier, or if it would have just prompted him to go even further down the rabbit hole. My hunch is the latter. There’s a lot of well-done and accurate depictions of airport operations (and a lot of weird-in-hindsight 1960s futurism, such as talk of superlifter cargo planes being thought of as something that would render sea freighters as obsolete as ocean liners and passenger pods being loaded into civilian C-5s).

The biggest issue is that the pacing is incredibly slow and lethargic for about four fifths of the book, then it hurriedly sprints to its conclusion. Maybe it was deliberate to try and be suspenseful, but if so, it didn’t work. The second biggest issue is that the characters are dull and dated-most obviously shown in a subplot where one of the main characters gets a flight attendant pregnant and the resulting drama.

This is a decent product of its time, but it’s still a product of its time and not the most recommended for later readers. It comes from an age when air travel was still something novel, and where readers would be less familiar with it. It’s not Hailey’s fault, but the book has aged terribly in that regard. Now it just comes across as 80% Herman Melville’s Airport Tales and 20% A Brief Disaster Novella, neither of which can really stand up.