Ira Sher

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"Gentlemen of Space"

(Reviewed by Jenny Dressel JUN 01, 2003)

“Perhaps you’re old enough to have followed that momentous summer on TV, or maybe you’ve read about the Apollo 19 launch and the brief carnival of Americana that was to flourish around the apartment building my family called home.”

Gentlemen of Space by Ira Sher

The place is Magnolia Court, Florida; the time is August, 1976; the narrator is Georgie Finch, aged 10. Georgie lives in Magnolia Court, outside Cape Canaveral, Florida, with his dad, Jerry, an enthusiastic middle school science teacher, and his mom, Barbara, a reclusive hospice nurse.

Read excerptDuring the mid-’70s and into the bicentennial year, the American public at large had lost interest in the space program and NASA. In order to jump start interest in the program, NASA decided to take an ordinary American to the moon. Thus, the purpose of the space mission named “Apollo 19.” An essay contest ensued in the country, in which the winner would become a fellow traveler of the astronauts, and walk on the moon. Georgie’s father won with a paper titled “Gentlemen of Space.” The essay was printed in newspapers all over the world and became one of the famous documents of the 1970’s. "'Gentlemen of Space,' in its quiet way, has become a modern classic of the middle-school civics class…”

In March, 1976, Jerry began to train at NASA with his partners, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin, to prepare for his launch into outer space. During this time, Jerry Finch became a national celebrity and hero. His ordinariness gave the public someone to admire; but in his home, he continued to be Barbara’s husband and Georgie’s father-- a somewhat geekish teacher. Georgie admired his father, but Barbara accepted Jerry’s eccentricities and obsession with space with a grain of salt.

As the launch neared, people started to gather in Magnolia Court. They wanted to pay homage and become closer to this regular man who was going to the moon. After the launch, media arrived, and the people who were camping below the Finch’s apartment set up their telescopes and visualizing equipment to watch the three astronauts travel to the moon. After the space capsule landed, this mass of people would scour the moon’s surface to follow the experiments and see Armstrong, Aldrin, and Finch walk in the dust of the Earth’s satellite.

For a moment I watched the two astronauts, losing them among the craters and boulders, finding them again. Their movements, from this distance, seemed completely without logic.

“Which one is him?” I asked.

“What do you mean?”

“Which one is my father?”

While Jerry Finch is walking on the moon, Barbara receives shocking news. Georgie’s babysitter, sixteen year old Angie Fitzpatrick, has turned up pregnant. Jerry is the father.

Then tragedy struck. Jerry Finch was walking on the moon and got lost. The professional astronauts and mission control had no explanations. He simply disappeared. A frantic search ensued and hypotheses ran rampant.

“Ladies and gentlemen,” the anchor person was saying-- I recall Walter Cronkite’s steely mustache, his red-rimmed eyes glancing to where the moon hovered over the skyline of Washington. “A terrible drama is unfolding above our heads tonight, as we speak. The arena is the moon, there for anyone to see, but thus far, the events themselves, horrible to imagine, have remained only that -- imaginary -- eluding the brightest and best minds in America, in the entire world…”

And while this drama plays out in front of the world and NASA is scrambling to find Jerry, the phone calls start. When the phone rings and Georgie answers it, his father is calling him from space. Or is he? I admit, I’m a “glass is half full” kind of person -- I found myself rooting for the phone calls to be real, but knowing logically that they couldn’t. But Sher kept me believing and hoping.

As days go by, the vigil held in Jerry’s honor continue. People arrive by the hundreds to Magnolia Court to honor the man lost in space, while Barbara and Georgie watch with a strange sense of aloofness. “It was as if no genuine feelings were allowed my family, because they all ran into the gummed walls of other people’s ludicrous dreams.”

Ira Sher’s debut novel, Gentlemen of Space, is a story of the American nation in more innocent times. It is the story of a tragedy without 24 hour news coverage and thoughts of terrorism. It is the story of a young boy, who has lost his father, and desperately needs him back. It is the story of celebrity, and how it affects us. It is the story of the U.S. space program when thousands of people were enthralled with travels to the moon. And while I admit, at times, I found the writing confusing and disjointed, it all comes together in the end. It is my opinion that Sher has written a beautiful book, and wanted me to feel disjointed at times. I plan on recommending this book to my book group, because I feel this would be wonderful for long discussions.

  • Amazon readers rating: from 6 reviews

Read a chapter excerpt from Gentlemen of Space at MostlyFiction.com



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About the Author:

Ira SherIra Sher's short fiction has been published in the Chicago Review and The Gettysburg Review, and broadcast on This American Life. He has been a finalist for the Pushcart Prize and Best American Mystery Stories.

Sher loves to write but makes his living as a Web developer, primarily for not-for-profit companies like small literary magazines and small literary presses.

He is married to Rebecca Wolff. They and their son live in Athens, New York. Ira's next book is a collarboration with Rebecca.

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