A tale of two solos

Two Very Different Books with the Same Title

I recently was chatting with a fellow reader about favorite books, and he happened to mention that he was rereading one of his favs: Going Solo. I immediately thought of Roald Dahl’s autobiography by that name, but in fact he was referring to Eric Klinenberg’s study of the growing trend towards single member households. Dahl’s book, one of my all-time favorites, recounts his earliest single years in East Africa and his RAF service in the Mediterranean theaters during World War II. I decided to read them together, as both deal however tangentially with the realities of striking out alone.

Klingenberg, a sociologist at New York University, considers the growing population of Americans who live singly and often have little or no interest in pursuing partnerships. It’s a vast population to observe—nearly a third of American households spread out over income, racial and age categories—but Klingenberg presents a mix of statistical data and interviews to paint a picture of a mostly positive future. Singletons (his preferred term) are often portrayed as lonely, withdrawn or even selfish in popular opinion, but he argues that the opposite is in fact the case. In cities with high proportions of singles, he recounts increased participation in social events, a more thriving cultural scene and even a decrease in stress and anxiety as people find new ways to pursue fulfilling lives free of close personal ties. Naturally the increased connectivity of the internet has played a large role in more people striking out by themselves, but Klingenberg also sees the lessened stigma of divorce and single parenthood as contributing factors. As he writes, “We are unmoored from tradition yet uncertain how to remake our lives, and in contemporary societies it has become increasingly common for people to move through different experiences—single, solo, married, separated, partnered and back—while anchored only by the self.” It’s an interesting argument, and he cites places with strong communal and walkable histories (particularly New York City and Stockholm, Sweden) as examples of strongholds of singleton ascendency. 

There are pitfalls that those in the singleton lifestyle have, perhaps, yet to address. Much of Klinenberg’s focus is on the poverty stricken occupants of single-room occupancy hotels or elderly who have little or no social safety net. Many of Klingenberg’s subjects express anxiety over the uncertainties of losing the independence they now enjoy, and the topic remains a big question. Klingenberg limits his study to large urban areas with already thriving social scenes, and addresses little of singletons’ lives in largely suburban or rural areas—a fault that he alludes to in a postscript, citing the paucity of research on the subject. But even if Going Solo might not entirely convince, it does herald what will likely become an increasingly important and vocal population. 

Striking out alone means a very different thing in Dahl’s Going Solo.  Heading out from school for the first time Dahl heads into the British Empire at its height right before World War II. Landing in Tanganyika (modern Tanzania) Dahl recounts his experiences working in the lush African countryside complete with lions and very deadly snakes. But it’s Dahl’s eye for character and his easy, raconteur style that makes Going Solo such a lively read. Just on the boat to Mombasa, Dahl’s cast of characters include the vigorous Major and his impressive cabin mate U. N. Savory who seem almost like prototypes for Dahl’s later colorful fictional figures. 

Dahl later went on to become a fighter pilot, living through one near-fatal crash and somehow managing to survive the rest of the war. Dahl manages to maintain his sense of humor and has no shortage of stories, but the war underscores the contradictory nature of Going Solo. It is not just an account of a man transitioning into adulthood, but the passage of one era into another. The scenes in Africa present the final days of domination by the British and the blatant racism of the era (which Dahl seems to share in some cringe-worthy moments), soon to end as African nations shook off colonialism. As the war begins, he witnesses death close at hand, and on his final sortie, encounters a group of Jewish refugees newly settled in Palestine. Written nominally for a juvenile audience, Going Solo (and its preceding volume, Boy) will appeal to teens and adults for the adventure of war and self-discovery.