ARTS AND CULTURE
That Time John Travolta Wrote a Terrible Book Involving Airplanes
Besides acting, Travolta is known to be a great disco dancer and qualified airline pilot. But everyone's talents have limits
The year is 1997. Titanic is best picture, scientists are cloning farm animals, and the Spice Girls are operating at maximum girl power. Some might say the cultural soup is perfectly flavoured for John Travolta’s novella Propeller One-Way Night Coach: A Fable for All Ages to soar in and steal hearts.
But somehow it doesn’t. The book languishes, forgotten, until one day in 2016, 19 years after its publication, you spy it on the shelves of your local used bookstore. No, you think, as you slide it out from between Trapido and Tremaine, it must be a different John Travolta? And you’re almost hoping to see anything but the massive photograph of him on the back cover, standing in front of an airplane, grinning into the sun, wearing what seems to be a conspicuously oversized suit, because that would confirm two truths: This book was indeed written by that John Travolta, and you’re definitely going to buy it.
The bookstore clerk keeps politely mum during the exchange, and once in the privacy of your home you examine it further. It’s small, with a hard cover, and sheathed in a dark blue dust jacket that you’re sure Travolta would have described to friends as “reminiscent of twilight.” You’ll later learn that the silver illustrations on the cover, of two planes surrounded by vaguely biblical looking stars, were actually drawn by Travolta himself. And not only is the book small in physical size, it’s also quite short on actual content, too. The 44 pleasantly pulpy pages are one-sided, the color of custard and almost as thick, and at least 10 of them are occupied by more of the author’s illustrations.
The book is sparsely typeset, with blue text. Wait, are those blue words? Yes, those words are blue. That’s weird. You’re about to waste a precious hour of your life reading blue words written by John Travolta. This realization weakens your soul against the overwhelming pull of life’s futility.
The book opens with an introduction written by the author, but Travolta’s origins for the tale are broad and murky: Propeller One-Way Night Coach is, apparently, “a contemplation of my love of aviation and a reflection of my whole life.” You learn that the book was written as a Christmas gift for his family, that the editing process involved sipping after-dinner drinks in a warm living room, reading aloud to Kelly Preston and friends. So, you think, this will probably be cheesy. Sappy. One of those Lifetime Channel types of reads. That’s fine, you think, it’s short, whatever. Life is futile anyway, right?
This is some of the worst writing you’ve ever read in your life
The actual plot of the novella is quite simple. Jeff, an eight-year-old boy, narrates as he and his mother, a singer and actress whose age and fading beauty have relegated her to teaching drama at a high school, book a milk-run plane across America (and at young Jeff’s request too – he’s just wild about planes, as evidenced by long, boring descriptions of flying and its related machinery haphazardly forced into seemingly unrelated paragraphs.) Mother is divorced and seeking a new man. Maybe she drinks too much, too, and claws too obviously at the life of glamour she almost had in her heyday. But Jeff loves and admires her, despite – or perhaps even because – of these things, though this ambiguity isn’t deliberate.
Very little of Propeller One-Way Night Coach seems deliberate, really: This is some of the worst writing you’ve ever read in your life. Truly, jarringly, maddeningly bad. For example, Travolta describes a character who’d been in a concentration camp as having “depth and true sadness,” he tells us that the fact that she had to watch her whole family die is “unfortunate.” When he encounters a very tall man, he’s sure to tell the reader that this was, “a surrealistic incident,” and all in this embarrassing “youthfully innocent” voice, that he’s only capable of demonstrating anecdotally, like when he hears the pilots chuckling to themselves, he remarks “only later did I realize, when I was older, that they were probably referring to sex or something.” Everything feels affected and unnatural and shifts unskilfully in tone and style, sometimes reading like memoir, other times little Jeff’s inner thoughts come out of nowhere, riddled with exclamation points. As it turns out, a 1997 review of the book in Entertainment Weekly posited that it might not have been edited at all. You’d have to agree with that theory, particularly at one point when Jeff’s “interests are peaked” instead of “piqued.”
That Travolta is no Faulkner when it comes to prose is no surprise, you think to yourself. You knew it was going to be bad, and it is. But for some reason you can’t release the smooth, twilight coloured book from your grip. There’s something worse than just abortively bad writing inside, and it’s calling to you reader, because you’re a reader, and this is what you do. You keep reading. And this time, for reasons that will make themselves clear by the end, the armchair shrink inside you is alert; the ghost of a well-nourished, Oklahoma moustache unfurling slowly over your top lip feels so real that for a split second you think it might be.
You, the Dr. Phil disciple, keep reading as Jeff and Mother arrive at the airport to await their flight. Jeff describes the excitement of their evening departure as akin to “playing doctor with the kids on the block.” Well that’s a strange and uncomfortable way to describe boarding your first plane, you think, stroking your invisible moustache. Why would Jeff use the language of first sexual encounters to describe this first encounter with a plane? Not to mention the fact that young Jeff is quickly falling in love with the disembodied voice that announces the comings and goings of the airport. He assumes it must belong to a beautiful actress of some sort (you’ll later discover that the voice belongs to a 74-year-old woman, coincidentally the mother of Doris, a stewardess on the plane – 18 years Jeff’s senior, and at the end of the tale, his wife – seriously.)
Well, that’s a strange and uncomfortable way to describe boarding your first plane
You stop for a moment to do some superficial digging into Travolta’s biography and it reveals that he had his own real-life love affair with a woman exactly 18 years his senior: Diana Hyland, the actor cast as his mother in the made-for-TV classic The Boy in the Plastic Bubble. How odd, you think. You learn that Travolta’s mother was also an actress and a singer, who ended up teaching drama at a local high school. And would you discover that Jeff and John Travolta have the same birthday, and have been enthusiastic about planes since childhood. Clever trick naming the protagonist Jeff, John Travolta, but not clever enough for this down-to-earth Oklahoma shrink.
With true identities confirmed, you push forward, while the painfully affected innocence of Jeff’s first-person voice forces more disturbing details to scream out. When Jeff’s mother shares inappropriate observations with him, like the fact that she still has a good figure for her age – one that would have been better had she not had Jeff so late in life (at 41 years old, the same age Travolta’s mother was when she had him). This has the unsettling effect of planting poor little Jeff firmly in the way of Mother feeling desired and finding love again, something she wants even more than an acting gig.
Jeff also reveals, in his excruciatingly unnatural way, that he sleeps in Mother’s bed a lot, and can continue to do so, “at least until she finds a husband.” Oh God, you mutter, shifting in your seat, but then you’re quickly pelted with more creepiness as Jeff talks about how the sight of Mother’s brand of cigarettes, and the idea of her smoking them, will always bring him “pleasurable memories.”
Eww, John Travolta! Pleasurable? Really? We all know, including you Captain Travolta, that the word pleasure is only used by amateur tantric sex therapists who spend their mornings scraping together a wispy ponytail instead of practicing their warrior pose. How dare you use that word in a book about a young boy and his mom? And why tell us about how when Mother flirts with men, she uses a voice that gets on little Jeff’s nerves; that is until she uses the voice on Jeff himself, and he’s so pleased he declares, “how could life be any better?”
And now, poor reader, you’re ready to put the book down, you were wrong about pushing on. Years of faithful Dr. Phil viewing have not equipped you with the psychoanalitic skill to unpack this twisted relationship.You need to stop, for the love of God, but you can’t.
We meet a few other characters on this one-way night coach too: a man who Mother ends up scoring with, despite Jeff’s nearly ruining it by asking him if he’s married (he is); that flight attendant whose experiences in a concentration camp were described as “unfortunate”; and of course Doris, Jeff’s much older future wife, who luckily grew up to have the same super-sexy voice as her 74-year old mother did. The strangest secondary character comes in the form of the only potential suitor Jeff approves of for mother: a lawyer who, in the span of five years, has watched three wives die of cancer. For some reason Jeff can’t wait to hook Mother up with this walking carcinogen and/or serial killer.
By the last page, you’re thoroughly nauseated; trembling, confused and cold from the inside out. You’ve experienced this sensation before, in the bewildered seconds that occur post-vomit. And who knows, maybe you did vomit. Because the only thing that’s truly clear by the end of this mostly confusing book, is that Travolta has no idea what he’s written. You recall the introduction, that the book was intended to be a gift to his family, that heartwarming editing process in the fire-warmed sitting room, reading it aloud. You think, where were you on this Kelly Preston? WHERE? And how is this “A Fable for All Ages”? It’s definitely not for all ages, and you’re pretty sure it’s not even technically a fable. There is no moral here.
Or, wait – perhaps there is? As you close the book, you’re confronted again with that picture of John Travolta on the back: grinning in front of a plane in that oversized suit, like a little boy trying to fill his father’s jacket, and suddenly the moral, not as obvious as you may think, leaps out at you – don’t surround yourself with yes-men, because look at me, John Travolta, and this humiliating little book.