Review of Ben H Winter’s Underground Airlines

Ben H. Winters
July 5, 2016
Mulholland Books

So, we are going to address the pachyderms in the room, then lead them over to a distant corner with buckets of peanuts (or whatever non-cartoon elephants eat), that we might ignore them for the rest of the proceedings.

The central premise behind UNDERGROUND AIRLINES is that slavery was not abolished. Instead, certain amendments were enacted to protect the practice of slavery in the American South and it currently remains legal in four states. The protagonist is a former slave (read: black man) who captures escaped ‘Persons Bound to Labor’ for the US Marshals’ service. The author, Ben H. Winters, is white. So am I.

If anything in the above paragraph makes you want to cry foul or stir up conspiracy, let’s part ways now. I’m not the sort that believes the discussion of injustice is reserved for those directly subjected to said injustice. Regardless, social commentary is only my job in Facebook flame wars (don’t test me). I’m here to discuss the novel. For the record, I believe that the discussion of race relations and slavery in this novel was handled with whatever grace Mr. Winters was capable.
I just wish I liked the book.

There are positives. The alternate history of the US is fascinating, and parceled out deftly as to not bog down the narrative. Winters’ vision of a different America is appropriately bleak and well-considered. Many of his minor characters are intriguing enough that you will want to spend much more time with them, and once the novel gives over to straight-thriller, the pacing is tight.

However, I found Winters’ style too distant and slack for the novel’s themes. Victor, the primary character, tasked with locating a refugee named Jackdaw, is muddled under so many adopted personalities that I never felt I knew the man, despite the first-person perspective. He also has the unnerving habit of frequently muttering “Alright, alright, alright.” Few novels should break me out of the narrative to think about DAZED AND CONFUSED. Many of the secondary characters felt like paper dolls, with no discernable personalities or emotional heft. The novel feels disconnected in a way that would be fine for most dystopian settings, but given the emotionally charged premise of UNDERG
ROUND AIRLINES (yeah, I’m acknowledging the elephants again…), this detachment seems misguided.

For me, UNDERGROUND AIRLINES is a ballsy stab at an intimidating and enlightening concept. Unfortunately, to make a hamfisted airplane analogy, the thing just taxis along a straight runway for far too long before it takes off. And the destination just wasn’t worth my fare.
Matt Morgan