Thursday, January 12, 2017

To the White Sea by James Dickey

Sergeant Muldrow is an American tail gunner during World War II.  He mans a massive machine gun in a plane as it flies raids over Japan.  Early in the story, his plane is shot down.  Muldrow is the only survivor as his obsessive preparations for each flight left him with the only parachute that was tied down.  He is able to parachute out of the spiraling plane to the safety of Tokyo--a place where he could be shot on sight.  In addition, he was briefed that Tokyo will be firebombed within the next day or two.  So, Muldrow must make his way through hostile territory without being detected and also avoiding the fire being rained down by his own countrymen.

To the White Sea is apparently in development to be made into a film.  And why not?  The synopsis reads like a thrilling adventure story.  The passages where Muldrow attempts to escape from Tokyo in a large crowd fleeing huge fires are dizzying and vivid.  If it is ever filmed, it could be an unforgettable sequence.  But this is not the first time this book has been talked about for a film adaptation.  Over a decade ago, the Coen brothers were working on a script until they realized that there is barely any dialogue in the story.  Muldrow has a brief conversation with a fellow soldier in the first chapter and one more interaction with an American later but for most of the book you are left with Muldrow's thoughts.

And that's what separates this book from most adventure stories.  Muldrow is no hero.  He is extremely well-suited to his predicament as he has little to no need for human companionship.  He grew up in rural Alaska and happily seeks a cold mountain in Japan where he can live off the land in isolation until there is an opportunity for total escape.  He traps game easily.  He kills whenever necessary and - it's hinted - when it is not.  As the story goes on, Muldrow no longer seems like an impressive and resourceful outdoorsman and starts to reveal himself as a violent enigma.  He is a man with few abstract thoughts beyond a guiding principal that the more he can leave the world of men for the world of nature the better off he will be.  He is barely there...which makes him perfectly adept to disappear.

If you like this book, you might also like Deliverance which is also by James Dickey.

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