The Man Who Ate the 747
by Ben Sherwood
(Bantam, $19.95, PG) ISBN 0-553-80182-1
***
Here's a question: why is it considered a great honor for a novel to be turned into a major motion picture? I would think that authors would be relieved if Hollywood wasn't interested in their work; the movie version inevitably butchers a memorable reading experience. Anyway, I'll admit that The Man Who Ate the 747 is the best "soon to be a major motion picture" novel that I've read in a while. That may be damning with faint praise, but it's better than nothing. The novel is cute. Obvious, but cute.

This modern day fable features J.J. Smith, who has spent the past 14 years traveling the world to authenticate bizarre feats for "The Book of Records." Lately, however, J.J. is growing weary, and his job performance is suffering. His overbearing boss gives him an ultimatum: bring him an exciting record. Or else. It's good timing, then, that he receives an anonymous letter calling him to the small town of Superior, Nebraska to witness an unbelievable feat. Apparently a man is methodically grinding down and eating a 747 jet that crash-landed in his field.

This is the break he needs. The jaded, sophisticated J.J. figures he'll buzz into town, dazzle the locals, validate this bizarre record, and be on his merry way. But he hasn't counted on several surprises. First, Wally Chubb, the airplane eater, isn't interested in publicity. His gustatory accomplishment isn't designed to attract the attention of the media, only the attention of the woman he's loved since childhood. Second, once J.J. meets the object of Wally's affection, he's hooked too. Now, instead of detached observer, J.J. finds himself becoming personally involved with the residents of Superior. On a professional level, he wants Wally to reach his goal. But on a personal one, he doesn't want Wally to win the girl that he has fallen for.

Ben Sherwood, a senior producer of the NBC Nightly News, is a good storyteller and a decent writer. For a man who has spent his career on the East Coast, he portrays a small Midwestern town with only a modicum of condescension and a great deal of affection. His brief novel combines themes from The Music Man (big time wheeler-dealer comes to small-town America), Wizard of Oz (Tin Man finds a heart; there's no place like home), with his own original story (okay, how do you eat a 747?). You can't help but chuckle at the wonderful absurdity of the various world records that J.J. rattles off to impress people, such as the longest continuous clothesline or winner of the world wife-carrying contest.

Unfortunately, the characters in the novel are little more than symbols. I do give Sherwood credit for creating a female character who is more than a beautiful face or a stereotypical načve, small-town girl. The focus of Wally's obsession, Willa Wyatt, is smart and ambitious, but loyal to her small-town roots. But the romance between J.J. and Willa is too sketchy to make a strong impression on demanding romance readers, who won't get to know either character well enough to feel invested in their happily-ever-after.

The obvious but well-meaning message about discovering the things in life that are really important, tied up with a rousing, made-for-Hollywood climax, make The Man Who Ate the 747 a fun reading experience. But, unlike the 747's stabilizer and navigation lights, it won't fill you up for long.

--Susan Scribner


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