To The White Sea: Leonard Pierce's comments

To The White Sea: Leonard Pierce's comments

The livechat discussion of To The White Sea will take place today, Thursday, December 3, at 3:30 p.m. CST. Check this space at that time for the link to participate.

 Like Scott, I first heard about James Dickey’s To The White Sea when I learned about the Coen brothers’ plans to adapt it for the screen. I never got around to reading it until now, but having done so—on a long holiday weekend where the Texas weather finally started to curdle into cold—Dickey seems even more than ever a writer intrinsically linked to the movies. It’s true that there’s an irony in the dialogue-loving Coens wanting to adapt a book so terse, where the only back-and-forth is between Muldrow and himself—but I was reminded even more of another filmmaker, another lover of snappy patter who might not seem like an obvious choice to adapt the story, but who I could easily see doing so: Howard Hawks. In fact, I pictured Muldrow, the World War II pilot with his single-mindedness, his determination, his value of rugged professionalism over emotional moralism (a pure hallmark of the man’s films) as a classic Hawks hero, somewhere between Gary Cooper’s Sgt. York and Kenneth Tobey’s Capt. Hendry. If nothing else, the book seems written with Hawks’ immortal “three good scenes, no bad ones” advice in mind.

Of course, Hawks made movies where the key element was the interaction—the friction between determined men and their equally determined foes. So what? So, too, are the novels of James Dickey constructed. To The White Sea proves that the man who milked so much drama out of the crumbling relationship of a group of men shadowed by almost phantasmal hillbillies in Deliverance could trim the formula down to almost nothing—for hillbillies, sub in Japanese; 3x natural forces; suck up all characters into one head, and let them stay there—and still deliver the same electrifying experience. The book starts out with some stunning descriptive passages that have already been discussed here; part of the reason it’s such a fine book is that its cinematic qualities trump any theoretical filmed adaptation. Someone might be able to capture the leap from building to building in the early pages, but no moviemaker could add to it the stench, the choke, the taste of burnt human flesh, the fire, and then the cold that Dickey is able to convey.

It’s probably inevitable to the point of triteness that I’d notice this, but I was immediately reminded, after the incredible intro of the Tokyo firebombing, of Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five. Both Vonnegut and Dickey’s heroes are transformed by the brutal firebombing of a city filled with civilians, and both turn entirely inward; however, while Vonnegut (and Billy Pilgrim) are traumatized into a sort of moral awakening, growing outward and upward to a transformative state, Muldrow’s sense of moral development, at whatever point it lay before the bombs fell, burns away like rice paper, and his journey is inward and backward, north to the cold and savagery of his Alaskan youth; Vonnegut’s creature of the ’60s escapes war and horror through self-alienation, while Dickey, the man of the ’70s, presents us with a hero wired into a survival trip, seeing neither kindness nor cruelty, but merely challenge. He doesn’t become more human; he become less so, in order to preserve his humanity.

Or does he? Is Muldrow’s transformation into something animalistic, or is it the shedding of a false façade and the assumption of the mantle he’d always wanted to wear? We’re exposed to precious little of who he was before, and even less of who he would be after, but there’s a pervasive sense throughout To The White Sea that we’re seeing a man, if not at his best, at least at his most real. Again, like the movies of Howard Hawks, where professionalism is the greatest virtue, Dickey is showing us how a man truly becomes what he is supposed to be when he’s constantly on the verge of ceasing to be. The fact that he manages to tightrope-walk the question of whether it’s worth it is a testament to the hypnotic power of Dickey’s writing, teaching us a lesson that’s as old as time—man will do anything to survive—without bothering to tell us whether the survival is worth anything. We’re rarely shown anything that indicates Dickey cares who Muldrow is; he could be Japanese as easily as he could be American. His circumstances and character define him, and what those circumstances and character actually are don’t seem to matter much.

I became so deeply immersed Muldrow’s altogether amoral journey into savagery (both words I use in as non-judgmental a way as I can) that I felt like his two major encounters with what can be read as his human opposite numbers—the blind kenji and the American monk—had me teetering nervously on the edge of disbelief, afraid they’d spoil the story. But, again to reference Hawks, Dickey included no bad scenes in this book, and while the latter scene was the hardest to swallow, it still held up and never quite collapsed, and the former turned out to be one of my favorite scenes in the whole novel. Like his hero’s actions, Dickey’s prose—by turns frank and detached—seems like a pure act of will, meant to get you from a beginning to an end with its sheer power.

To Scott’s questions:

• Muldrow is an interesting character; I don’t necessarily buy him as the hunter, doing only what he needs to do to survive. His cruelty bears too much of a flourish; his kills are too numerous and unnecessary. If he’s an animal, he’s a mean one, a dog gone cruel whose masters are absent, evil, or full of license. But he never seems like a sociopath, and Dickey never allows us the cheap luxury of saying the war did this to him; the war simply allowed this to emerge. Of course, that makes it no more or less a damning statement about war, if you want to read it that way. But I could easily swing between seeing Muldrow as a noble killer of the Hawksian Sgt. York variety and seeing him as a Lou Ford, carving himself out the chance to kill and never be judged.

Blood Meridian was, as Donna pointed out, a book very much about society, of people who behave at their worst and expect to be praised for it, of people of utter cruelty and violence who maintain their roles in the social fiction until faced with a character in the Judge who won’t allow them to hide, and who thus horrifies them. To The White Sea strips that all away: No one is defining Muldrow but himself, and if he’s lying to himself, he (and Dickey) never lets us know. There were similarities, but Dickey doesn’t give us any greater world in which to place the behavior of his human monster.

• The book is definitely about war, because it not only defines Muldrow’s circumstance, but allows him his moral choices by letting him behave as if the society upon which he inflicts himself bears no authority over him. Because he is in the land of the enemy, giving them humanity or even moral weight strips him of the ability to kill, of the perception that they are an obstacle to be overcome. War is appealing as a backdrop for fiction because it means the suspension of consequence; if Muldrow had behaved like this after merely getting lost in a friendly country, the narrative of To The White Sea would be decidedly more psychotic.