The Peripatetic Reviewer
by Edward Weeks
A man of intense sympathy and increasing imaginative power. John Hersey has come to his writing with less insularity than many of his contemporaries. He was born in Tientsin, China, in 1914 and spoke Chinese fluently before he knew English. As a war correspondent for TimeLife he was appropriately assigned to the Pacific, and his first book, Men on Bataan, in the nature of a correspondent’s report, appeared in 1942. A year later he published Into the Valley, describing what had happened to a Marine company on Guadalcanal which had been entrapped by the Japanese deep in the jungle. This was the semi-fictional story of the Marines’ reactions and his own as they fought to extricate themselves. I remember him well on his return, for he spoke in a symposium which I chaired at the Town Hall in New York; he spoke without notes, and his remarks about the fighting men on Guadalcanal made his eight minutes the most stirring on the program.
Hersey’s third book, A Bell for Adano, grew out of his experiences on the Italian front, and in it he moved from journalism to the novel. His gift for characterization and his inherent compassion served him well; the book was widely read and earned him the Pulitzer Prize in fiction for 1945. It was followed by his most formidable performance in journalism, Hiroshima, which traced the atomic holocaust through the factual record of six survivors.
It was not easy for any writer so long engrossed in war to find themes of comparable drama in civilian life. I think Hersey may have hoped to expunge the violence once and for all in The Wall, the intricate, anguished story of the Polish Jews fighting to survive the Nazi brutality in Warsaw; one had the feeling that The Wall was more of a tour de force than Hiroshima, that the suffering in it was not as much a part of Hersey as what he had experienced in Japan, and that it was high time he found in New England, where he, his wife, and his children were happily settled, some contemporary American leads which would give full scope to his ability as a novelist. But it would be some fifteen years before he did.
JOHN HEUSEY’S new short novel, UNDER THE EYE OF THE STORM (Knopf, $4.95), begins as an innocent summer cruise out of Edgartown. Aboard the sturdy yawl Harmony are the guests: Flick Hamden, an electronic gadgeteer, and his complacent wife, Dottie; the owner, Doctor Thomas Medlar, a liver specialist in his mid-thirties, and his attractive wife, Audrey. The weatherman has been making noises about a tropical storm named Esrné, which is reported five hundred miles off the Georgia coast and meandering. Tom Medlar has a head for details, and the care of his beloved Harmony is the perfect antidote for his practice in surgery. Tom, who at the moment is fed up with medicine and depressed by “the downhillness of everything since the Korean War,” looks forward to showing his boat off, not unmindful, on this sunny morning, that Esrné may be in the offing.
The skipper is a fusspot aboard ship; his wife calls him Dr. Meticulous. He keeps an impeccable log, he keeps every piece of equipment in trim, just as he keeps an assortment of emergency gear in the lockers or stowed up forward, each ticked off in his inventory mind. He fusses at the others until the three join forces in laughing indifference to his caution. Flick, in particular, enjoys teasing. “Why a sailboat?” he asks, and Tom, goaded and embarrassed, talks about the illusion of a triumph over the evil side of nature, which you get for a short time on such a craft — words which a few hours later he would gladly eat. As the day begins to cloud over, Tom is appalled to find that his friend has not brought any oilskins with him, and to the annoyance of the others, he puts into the nearest harbor to make good the deficit.
Propinquity begins to work on the four of them. Tom feels a momentary attraction to Dottie in her bikini as she lies sprawled asleep on the canvas cushions of the cockpit. Flick, who seems to resent any request to lend a hand, annoys the skipper, and annoys him still more when with lipstick and a black eye patch cut from the log, he comes roaring on deck as a buffoon pirate. The situation is really torn when Tom intercepts what he takes to be a naked look of adoration between his wife and Flick. Are they really lovers he wonders, and the thought becomes part of the nightmare from which he awakens at three in the morning to find that the storm has closed in on them while they were sleeping at anchor in Great Salt Pond.
Tom is by rights the central character, and his planning and reflexes as he struggles to keep the boat afloat are an ingenious piece of seamanship. The struggle is a long one, for he knows that the eye of the storm will not reach them until 1:15. He knows that the odds are against them, and that the Harmony is a sick boat because of “that one lousy piece of pinchpenny lumber in its keel,” the rotting wood enclosing the keel bolt. The benumbing of Flick and the surprising behavior of the girls are part of his problem. Against the inhuman violence of the hurricane he has only the instinctive precaution of his ordered mind. I admire the powerful writing in this book, which is as believable as the inane relief which seizes them all when the eye has passed. The author has staged the ending so abruptly as to suggest that this is the last the two couples want to see of each other; the ordeal simply broke them apart.
Centaur and editor
When I was learning my trade as a book salesman in New York, STUART ROSE was the most colorful anomaly in our business; here was a handsome man, black-haired, lean, with legs designed for a saddle, who should have ridden with Jeb Stuart yet somehow had drifted into publishing. Throughout life Rose has agreed with TR’s observation that “the outside of a horse is good for the inside of a man.” He was dedicated to the Cavalry by his two uncles, both of whom rode in that service in the Spanish-Amcrican War, and Stuart himself at the age of sixteen, having falsified his age, volunteered for the 1st New York Cavalry, then on the Mexican border, and went on to be a highly efficient machine gunner in France. He would like to have made his career in the regular army, but when his family went broke, he was called back to Manhattan to help support them and himself, and editing was what most appealed to this centaur. Riding of any kind — schooling, fox hunting, steeplechasing — was still his passion, and this ambivalence of his for the horse and the book is responsible for an unusual, vigorous, very masculine memoir, THERE’S A FOX IN THE SPINNEY (Doubleday, $4.95). Stuart Rose may not have the lyrical touch of Siegfried Sassoon, whose Memoirs of a Fox-Hunting Man is a post-World War I classic, but with his wry sense of humor he rides a close second.
After the Armistice but while still in the army, Mr. Rose sustained a hard fall while racing mules, and it broke his back. The army doctor passed it ofT with some ointment, and for the next twenty years the young veteran went through the hardest kind of equestrian usage without realizing that he had a fractured frame. For many of those years he did not have enough money to own a stable, and the stages by which he rose to be a licensed “gentleman rider,” a huntsman of renown, and a jockey much desired by wealthy patrons make good reading. He tells more dashingly than anything else I have read of the delights and the difficulties of fox hunting and steeplechasing in the United States. He received more spills and bruises than silver ('“Second Place Rose, they call him, Second Place Rose,” his wife, Pat, sang to him as they returned from one point-to-point), but Stuart always survived to ride another day, and his inextinguishable zest and courage made him welcome wherever there was a meet.
These same qualities and a nice sense of judgment informed his friendships with Harold Lamb and James Branch Cabell when he was editor of McBride’s; his man-to-man relationship with Alfred McIntyre when he was editing for Little, Brown; his admiration for Margaret Mitchell, James Boyd, Clifford Dowdey, and Walter D. Edmonds when he was buying and editing the fiction for the Saturday Evening Post. Stuart’s prose sometimes goes clippety-clop, as if the centaur rather than the editor were writing, and he has in him an old-world gallantry which permits him to say, as he leaves the paddock for the starting gate, “I’ll feel like a knight of old wearing milady’s gauge.” No other editor I know could say a thing like that and get away with it.
Foreign policy and the press
JAMES B. RESTON, the associate editor and senior Washington correspondent of the New York Times, came to his present eminence from the sports page. In 1937 he was sent abroad to cover Wimbledon and the Irish sweepstakes for the Cincinnati Inquirer, and two months later he was covering the foreign office in London for the Associated Press. He could never have accomplished this transition had he been less sage and quizzical, and in his new book he modestly alludes to this sudden transformation as a symbol of the amateur standing of so many now in the capital, THE ARTILLERY OF THE PRESS (Harper & Row, $3.95) is Mr. Reston’s penetrating analysis of the influence of American newspapers on our foreign policy; in chapters that are searching, well informed, and witty, he examines the testy relationship between the executive and the reporter.
The book opens with two contending quotations: Lenin asked in 1920, “Why should freedom of speech and freedom of press be allowed?”, and Thomas Jefferson remarked in 1787 that “were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers, or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to choose the latter.” Mr. Rcston begins by examining the machinery of the press. He regrets that in the who-what-when-wherewhy technique of news writing the why comes last and often gets left out altogether. He acknowledges that in the McCarthy era the lie was given the same impact and importance as the truth, and that the publish-and-be-damned principle can actually damage our national security, as happened when the Chicago Tribune disclosed the fact that we had cracked the Japanese code. He bears down hard on the loud moralizing of American leaders. “Talking off the record,” he writes, “to 1,000 people is like making love in Grand Central Station,” and this leads him to speak his mind about the feeling abroad that American officials are too inexperienced to exercise safely the power they possess.
Mr. Reston comes to the heart of the matter in his chapter entitled The President and the Press. The power of the presidency, he says, has been increasing steadily since World War II and almost all scientific and political trends are enhancing this power “more than they are increasing the power of the Congress or the press.” He places his hope in what Matthew Arnold termed “the educated remnant”: “My hope is that the best elements in the press, in networks and government, in the schools, colleges, universities and the church, in business, commerce and finance will prevail over the worst, and create a ‘remnant,’ in Arnold’s terms, that will have a dominant influence on our society. My nightmare is that the ‘remnant’ will be divided, exhausted, and corrupted. The danger of this is very real.”
Spaceman at large
The problem of the non-student, the drifter who is not eligible for college or capable of a good job but somehow manages to hang on precariously, is nationwide. The hero of IN ORBIT (New American Library, $3.95) by WRIGHT MORRIS is one such. The novel begins when Jubal Gainer, like a spaceman in his crash helmet, comes thundering into the small Midwestern village of Pickett on the motorcycle which he has stolen. Jubal is a guitar player trying to escape the draft. He has no money, just this mad desire to get away. And in Pickett he runs out of gas.
Pauline Bergdahl, who services the gasoline station in her unlaced tennis sneakers and her surplus pea jacket, spots him for the mean truant that he is, and telephones her hunch to her friend Curt Hodler, the editor of the Pickett Courier, who pays her $5 for her tips when they prove to be right. In this case Hodler is skeptical, with the result that Jubal the boy, footloose and desperate, goes on the rampage, taking what he can get and on the way assaulting Holly Stohrmeyer, the village halfwit. The hue and cry begins, and in the pursuit we come to know quite a lot about the moving spirits in this little town: about the German refugee and musician Haffner, who teaches at the girls’ college; about Alan Hatfield, the poet, and about Charlotte, his attractive scatterbrained wife; we see the sheriff in action; and most of all, we follow the thoughts and actions of Hodler, the quiet peace-loving editor.
In Orbit reminds me of Winesburg, Ohio. It holds within it the very natural short stories of a community suddenly invaded by what Miss Holly thinks was a spaceman, a community suddenly saved from bloodshed by a howling twister.