God of Speed
Allen & Unwin, $32.95 pb, 304 pp, 9781741143508
The title is presumably meant to be ambiguous. Not only did the protagonist, Howard Hughes, hurtle round the world in aeroplanes of his own devising, and not only did he ingest amphetamines at a rate that would finish most of us, but there is also a sense of his crashing non-stop through life itself. And 'speed', he tells us in Luke Davies' remarkable new novel, 'shouldered some of the weight for me ... helped me maintain control over a bucking project, since, control, ultimately, is all there is.'
As I read God of Speed, I couldn't help wondering who still knows about Hughes (1905–76). Younger readers may have seen Martin Scorsese's intermittently engrossing biopic, The Aviator (2004). Quite by chance, my daughter told me that she recently spoke to someone who had never heard of Merle Oberon. I can't say how shocked I was. It led me to wonder if such people will know who Hughes's famous bed-partners were (not Merle, I'm happy to say). It is one thing to say their name was Legion; it is another to say their names were also Billie Dove, Jean Harlow, Carole Lombard, Faith Domergue (Faith who? I hear you cry; only dedicated buffs will know), among many others. Buffs will also have no trouble with Jane Greer, and how privileged they are, while the elderly will smile knowingly at the bedroom appearances of Susan Hayward, Lana Turner, Ava Gardner and Ginger Rogers – and surely everyone knows about Katharine Hepburn. But you can't help wondering how long people's memories are.