“As far as I was concerned, still, the word or words I had picked up had to do with the fire raid; with the napalm and white phosphorus; with the people choking and scrambling in the streets and the long moaning noise that came out of them; with the buildings falling in and the guy turning a somersault over me and crashing into the building; with the shoving and the stumbling and the smoke. All that seemed a long way off now. There were some things about it I could hardly remember. What mattered was the road I was on, and that I could use something to eat, and maybe some more wine.” —Muldrow
Since I’m kicking things off with my Wrapped Up In Books selection, James Dickey’s 1993 (but timeless, really) novel To The White Sea, I should start by confessing how I came to discover it. As a cinephile, I often like to seek out books in the process of being adapted by my favorite filmmakers, because I’ve always found it a fun exercise to imagine how a story might look from their lens. So should, say, Martin Scorsese ever get around to making a movie out of Shusaku Endo’s Silence, I’ve been ready for it for the nearly 20 years since reading it as an undergrad. To The White Sea has been listed as a possible Coen Brothers film for quite a few years now—you can find the 90-page script online here—and though Dickey wrote the more widely celebrated Deliverance and was also a highly regarded poet, it was my first exposure to his work. Needless to say, I was astonished by it on any number of levels, not least because perhaps the greatest wordsmiths of contemporary cinema were prepared to adapt a book with no dialogue after page 22. [Note: A reader points out, to my deep embarrassment, that Muldrow's lengthy exchange with the American Buddhist in the final third of the book. To which I say, "D'oh!"] It’s a survivalist adventure story that takes us deeper and deeper inside one man’s head, which proves to be a strange and discomfiting place to be.
Let me start with the passage I’ve quoted above (p.79), because it captures in essence so much of what I love about this book. Our hero, Muldrow, was the tail gunner of a B-29 shot down on the eve of the fire bombings that devastated Tokyo in March, 1945. At this point in the book, he has borne ground-level witness to the most horrific bombing raid in history; essentially a wooden city, Tokyo was uniquely susceptible to “the napalm and white phosphorus” rained down by American warplanes, and roughly 85,000 civilians were killed. In the early passages of the book, shortly after Muldrow escapes capture by hiding in the sewers—an image that gets those olfactory senses going already—Dickey takes a sideways angle into the bombings that both properly conveys the nightmarish surreality of the event (the heat and the smoke and the screaming, the shuffling masses heading from land to the equally deadly water, one man’s astonishing leap through sparks to get from one building to another) and the cool detachment of Muldrow from it. There’s great economy and discipline to the way Dickey writes about the firebombing—Muldrow-like, in fact—because he never wanders beyond his hero’s sightline and attempts to give us the larger picture. It’s merely a glancing (if memorably vivid) description of war at its most unfathomably cruel and destructive; and Muldrow, ever the clinical thinker, is ultimately led by his will to survive, no matter what it takes.
Of course, the supreme irony of the Tokyo firebombing in To The White Sea is that it serves as the perfect cover for a white American (and being from Alaska, probably among the whitest Americans) to get out of the city alive. Muldrow is almost superhumanly resourceful—he would shiv McGuyver with a repurposed butter knife—but even he wouldn’t stand much of a chance blending into the urban millions. He just happens to come along at a time when everyone’s minds are set on survival, their faces are covered in soot, and perhaps some cloth over their mouths to boot. As much as we’re awed by Muldrow’s ingenuity—both in his in-the-moment improvisation and his long-term planning about making his way from Tokyo to the northernmost chill of Hokkaido—there are times when he’s just plain lucky. That he would have to count to Tokyo firebombing as his lucky day is only the starkest indication of the book’s grim, matter-of-fact tone. (A tone that, again, aligns with Muldrow’s perspective rigorously, yet nonetheless yields passages of brutal poetry like the one I quote above.)
The other perverse irony at play in To The White Sea: Muldrow isn’t terribly upset about his situation. Where any other pilot shot down over enemy territory would be scared out of his wits—and in this specific situation, fearful that he would never make it home, even if he does stay alive—Muldrow sees a path to self-realization. All those hunting and survivalist instincts that kept he and his father alive in Alaska’s Brooks Range were left to atrophy in the military anyway; though clearly an excellent gunner, Muldrow doesn’t like the false flying of graceless machines and he certainly isn’t a people person. Once he gets his bearings and slips into the headspace of the hunted, parachuting into Tokyo becomes, in the words of Homer Simpson, a “crisatunity,” his chance for glorious self-realization. He wants to be alone. He wants to be in the cleansing cold. He wants to live on his wits in a place where other men fear to tread.
The mythic journey Muldrow takes in the book is from man to animal—and I’ll leave other bibliophiles to catch the allusions—but clearly the guy is over halfway home from the start. He’s a simple man, with a hunter’s cold-eyed view of nature: You kill with a clear purpose (to eat, to survive, to keep from getting killed yourself), and you don’t look back. This is why the massive body count that accumulates by his hand doesn’t bother him—save for having to kill the man who rescued him from the goats—but the ritualistic cruelty of the villagers with the bears they’ve captured turns his stomach. (And this after they’ve nursed him back to health and were likely paying tribute to him.) He’s not exactly a sympathetic figure; the brutality with which he goes about his business is shocking, gratuitous, and sub-human at times, and his view of the “Nips” isn’t any more enlightened than that of the average grunt. But he does proceed with a clarity of purpose that Dickey renders with unblinking force. From the start, the voice of the author disappears behind that of his main character’s, and it never pops up to editorialize or coax the reader into a particular interpretation.
Let me leave it at that for now. Some discussion questions for the group:
• What do you make of Muldrow, and the role morality does or does not play in our understanding of him? Where is his place in literature?
• Was I the only one with a sense of déjà vu reading this after tackling Blood Meridian a few months ago? Was double-dipping into episodic journeys of human savagery too much for you or did To The White Sea have its distinctions?
• To what extent is To The White Sea a book about war? For the most part, Muldrow leaves the war behind him once he escapes Tokyo and makes his way north, but how long a shadow does it cast?
• Assuming you liked the book—and you had to have, right?—what are the episodes that really stayed with you? For me, it’s hard to top the firebombing section, but the ending is really spectacular.
• Are you ever going to look at your feather pillow and kitchen cutlery the same way again?