On the day before Thanksgiving in 1971, a man later known as D. B. Cooper hijacked a plane in Seattle, collected a ransom of $200,000 in used twenties, and parachuted into the forest of Washington or Oregon. He was never heard from again. Only about $6,000 was ever recovered, found by a kid digging in a sandbank along the Columbia River. It is the only unsolved skyjacking in U.S. history, and in that wonderful, only-in-America way that the rest of the world never really understands, D. B. Cooper has become a folk hero.
What a wonderful idea for a novel! Elwood Reid has, among his many other virtues as a writer, the sense to recognize a great story when he finds one. Reid, who came to the U-M in the 1980s on a football scholarship and is best known around here for his first novel, If I Don't Six, a scary tell-all tale about the horrors of Big Ten and U-M football, has been working hard as a writer the last decade or more. But D.B., his new novel based on the D.B. Cooper story, may finally find him a larger audience.
As Reid presents it, D. B. Cooper's life before the hijacking seemed caught in several dead ends. After the jump he takes most of his loot to Mexico, where his tawdry leisure makes him surprisingly reflective. Of course, Reid is a realist, and there is nothing sappy or easy about the character Cooper becomes. He is still hard edged, with a taste for the margins. In the second plot of D. B., a retired FBI agent who had been a part of the original investigation stumbles through his retirement, still obsessed by one of his cases and still connected to the Cooper skyjacking. His life seems to be spiraling downward, until the appropriately understated point where the two plots meet.
Reid avoids any easy sentimentality. When his characters stop to take in the scenic view beside a highway in Utah, they see "red rocks and steep gullies filled with road trash — torn fast-food bags, Gatorade bottles brimming with fermented piss, animal bones, rusted oil drum tops, one sheet of drywall, and a crumpled cardboard sign that read WHY LIE? I NEED A BEER." But Reid can also be very funny, and his sense of American life is a refreshing antidote to the image our politicians like to project. Best of all, he obviously loves the characters he creates out of the worn and often seamy fabric of American life.
Elwood Reid reads from D. B. at Shaman Drum Bookshop on Saturday, July 31.