‘The Flight At­ten­dant’ is the per­fect air­plane read

The Oklahoman (Sunday) - - BOOKS - BY MAU­REEN CORRIGAN,

“The Flight At­ten­dant” by Chris Bo­h­jalian (Dou­ble­day, 368 pages, in stores)

“The Flight At­ten­dant” opens with a doozy— dare I say a killer?— of a hang­over scene.

Cas­san­dra “Cassie” Bowden is a sea­soned sur­vivor when it comes to the af­ter­ef­fects of binge drink­ing and ran­dom hookups. A gor­geous sin­gle woman in her late 30s, Cassie en­joys the off­duty perks of her job as a flight at­ten­dant. A fist­ful of Advil and a shower and she’s ready to step back into her slightly crum­pled uni­form. But one fate­ful morn­ing in a ho­tel room in Dubai puts a dead stop to Cassie’s fancy-free life­style.

The scene teas­ingly un­folds over the first five pages of the novel: the harsh morn­ing light, the parched sour­ness of Cassie’s mouth, the dizzy rec­ol­lec­tions of a pas­sion­ate night spent with the hedge fund man­ager named Alex she met on the flight from New York. Cassie turns to look at the man in the bed be­side her:

“For a split sec­ond, her mind reg­is­tered only the idea that some­thing was wrong. It may have been the body’s ut­ter still­ness, but it may also have been the way she could sense the am­phib­ian cold. But then she saw the blood . ... She saw his neck, ... how the blood had gey­sered onto his chest and up against the bot­tom of his chin, smoth­er­ing the black stub­ble like honey.”

The slow-mo­tion get­away that plays out over the next five chap­ters is par­tic­u­larly ex­cru­ci­at­ing, but anx­i­ety-prone read­ers will have to re­mind them­selves to breathe for pretty much the en­tirety of this novel.

For starters, a blood­stained Cassie has to fig­ure out how to un­ob­tru­sively exit that room and walk back to the ho­tel where her flight crew will be as­sem­bling for the shut­tle ride to the air­port. (Step One: Place a “Do Not Dis­turb” sign on the ho­tel room door and take a quick shower. Step Two: Exit ho­tel and toss re­mains of the pos­si­ble mur­der weapon— a bro­ken Stolich­naya bot­tle— into trash cans along the way.)

Reach­ing her ho­tel room, Cassie be­gins scram­bling into her uni­form when there’s a knock at the door. She freezes. False alarm. Fast-for­ward a cou­ple of hours when her plane is mys­te­ri­ously de­layed on the run­way. She freezes. Another false alarm. All through the multi-leg flight back to New York, Cassie is tor­mented by a ques­tion she can’t an­swer be­cause of her drunken black­out: Did she cut Alex’s throat with that bro­ken vodka bot­tle?

Filled with tur­bu­lence and sud­den plunges in al­ti­tude, “The Flight At­ten­dant” is a very rare thriller whose penul­ti­mate chap­ter made me think to my­self, “I didn’t see that com­ing.” The novel— Bo­h­jalian’s 20th — is also en­hanced by his deft­ness in sketch­ing out vivid char­ac­ters and lo­cales and by his ob­vi­ous re­search into the re­al­i­ties of air­line work. Here’s Cassie mulling over her choice to keep her ex­pen­sive apart­ment in Man­hat­tan, a taxi ride away from her home base of Kennedy Air­port:

“She knew lots of flight at­ten­dants who would waste a valu­able day off or have to get up early com­mut­ing ... and then spend a half day or an overnight in some squalid crash pad near the air­port. She’d lived in one once, the bot­tom bunk in a base­ment bed­room in a ram­shackle town­house in Ozone Park, Queens. There were at least a dozen other flight at­ten­dants who lived there— or, to be pre­cise, crashed there.”

In­evitably, Alex’s body is dis­cov­ered and his one-night stand with Cassie be­comes pub­lic. Cassie be­comes the FBI’s prime sus­pect and is dubbed the “Cart Tart Killer” by the tabloids. But Cassie has more to fear than nasty nick­names or even jail time. As her mem­ory of that mis­be­got­ten night im­proves, Cassie re­mem­bers de­tails about another woman— some kind of busi­ness as­so­ciate of Alex’s— who vis­ited the ho­tel room and knocked back vodka while re­main­ing un­nerv­ingly sober. Work­ing a flight to Rome, Cassie is cer­tain she spots that woman in an air­port line. And, what’s with the shady Rus­sian busi­ness con­nec­tions Alex might have had?

“The Flight At­ten­dant” is the ul­ti­mate air­plane book, and not just be­cause of its name: en­ter­tain­ing and filled with inside info on the less glam­orous as­pect of flight crew’s lives, it may even make you more po­litely at­ten­tive the next time you’re asked to lis­ten to that in-flight lec­ture on emer­gency wa­ter land­ings.

Corrigan, who teaches lit­er­a­ture at Ge­orge­town Univer­sity, is the book critic for the NPR pro­gram Fresh Air.

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