"Airframe," by Michael Crichton. Knopf. 368 pages. $26.
How do you know when Michael Crichton has turned out one of his best novels? When you're afraid that reading it will ruin the movie for you.
At his best, Crichton has turned out stuff from "Jurassic Park" to "ER" that has proven compulsively screenworthy. Add "Airframe," his new novel about the airline industry, to this list. It's a one-sitting read that will cause a lifetime of white-knuckled nightmares - and this in spite of the slipshod quality of the writing.
You won't find shades of gray in this book: It takes two pages, tops, to put someone on the good-guy or bad-guy list. The plot is resolutely straightforward: A mid-air shakeup leaves three passengers dead and the makers of the airplane need an explanation and need it yesterday. Hot on their heels is a "60 Minutes"-type competitor of the sort that doesn't "want information so much as evidence of villainy."
Watching all this unfold are both the foreign company considering an $8-billion-dollar order that will save the plane maker and the local union looking out for its own interests in a concrete-overshoed way.
The writing is largely unadorned - probably a blessing, as similes like "he looked like a cobra about to strike" shouldn't be encouraged. And the occasional character falls into dialogue as lead-footed as the union leader who tells the heroine "I always liked you, Casey ... But you hang around here, I can't help you."
But Crichton, who started turning out bestsellers like "The Andromeda Strain" when he was fresh out of Harvard Medical School, turns this book into something much more scintillating than your typical disaster novel simply by doing what he does best - deluging the reader with detail. Tons of technical airplane trivia, of course, delivered through beeper messages and delectably indecipherable charts and the convenient explanation to the nephew-of-the-boss assistant.
To read "Airframe" is to feel you've had a quick and dirty education in air safety, while hoping against hope that what you're reading is mainly fiction. Good luck convincing yourself: "Why the FAA would mandate the installation of FDRs [Flight Data Recorders], without also requiring that they be in working order before each flight, was a frequent subject of late-night discussion in aerospace bars from Seattle to Long Beach. The cynical view was that malfunctioning FDRs were in everybody's interest. In a nation besieged by rabid lawyers and a sensational press, the industry saw little advantage to providing an fTC objective, reliable record of what had gone wrong."
It's a nice illusion, that you might be just another aerospace geek sitting around discussing uncommanded slats deployment with the best of them. And Crichton drops enough hints about just what did happen on Flight 545 to give you hope that you'll figure it out before those irritating media people.
Probably not, but even so you'll have a couple of chase scenes, a nifty flight simulator and some virtual reality goggles to keep you amused along the way, whether you order yours straight up or with popcorn.
Elizabeth Teachout is a pianist and opera coach from New York City. She has worked with the Young Artists Program and New Directors workshop at Lincoln Center.
Pub Date: 12/08/96