The Peripatetic Reviewer
THE DRIFTERS by Random House, $10.00
What are Mr. James Michener’s qualifications for writing about kids in trouble? He is sixty-three years old and a veteran of the Second World War, whose first book, Tales of the South Pacific, which won the Pulitzer Prize, grew out of his experiences in the Navy. The enormous success of South Pacific put him on easy street, and with the sensitive assistance of his Japanese wife, he has continued to explore the East. He knows of the insidious corruption of opium, and, most important in any interpretation of the young, he is a lover of music and an admirer of Professor Childs’s classic anthology of English and Scottish ballads. The pressure of the American establishment on the young has been long in his thinking, and has prompted him to write Kent State: What Happened and Why, a defense which was published shortly before his novel The Drifters.
Six of the major characters in The Drifters are twenty-one or younger, and the story begins with a sympathetic portrait of each of them who in their various ways are rebels. The first, Joe, is a boy from California whose mind has been festering over Vietnam; he drops out of college and makes his way east through the undergound to a friendly professor at New Haven, who advises him to quit the country and head for Torremolinos on the coast of Spain, where there are “all sorts of bars, dance halls and ... a smart guy can always make a living.” Tall, shaggy, with no regrets for the break with his parents, Joe departs from Boston, where Gretchen Cole, the singer of ballads, has given him $200 which her committee has collected for the resisters. Joe likes his sampling of Torremolinos, and with the help of Jean-Victor, a friendly panderer, he wangles a job in one of the three hundred bars and stays put.
Torremolinos is the honeypot which attracts drifters from everywhere, including shoals of pretty and not-so-pretty girls, on holiday and man-hungry, and there they are served by American soldiers on leave, Germans who have money in the place, Spanish philanderers, and guys like Joe. Each nationality has its favorite hotels and restaurants, and in sum they compose an indolent, sexy, music-loving discotheque.
Of the five who follow Joe there is the beautiful Britta, escaping from the winter boredom of Norway; Cato, a black militant and honor student at Pennsylvania, who is wanted by the Philadelphia police for having held up an Episcopalian congregation with a machine gun; Monica, an angry nymphomaniac expelled from one of Britain’s lost colonies in Africa; and the two most interesting, Yigal, the seventeen-year-old Israeli, a hero of the Six-Day War, and Gretchen Cole, the comely singer and ardent supporter of Eugene McCarthy, whom the police abused after the Chicago riots. In a fortuitous way they all gravitate to one common pad in Torremolinos, where they come under the protective scrutiny of “Uncle Charlie” Fairbanks, an American agent for a Swiss bank, who by chance knew four of them when they were children. This is pretty obvious staging, but for the time being it works.
Fairbanks is tolerated by the young as an old fart. He is sixty-one, and, I suspect, the author in disguise. He knows more about them than they realize; appraises the music they depend on; hears the rebellion in their favorite lyrics; and understands “that in the modern world, with its crowded and dirty mechanical cities, romance can live only in the open spaces of the south and west.” He disapproves of their drugs, is unsparing in his account of what heroin does to Gretchen, the most fastidious of the lot, and obviously dislikes their casual, unprivate sex life. In short, it is he who links the story to the older generation.
Like so many contemporary plays, The Drifters is more effective in building up a situation than in resolving it. The book is overlong and, as in Gretchen’s singing, needlessly repetitive. (One can stand ten ballads but not five times ten.) The first half is clearly the better, and when Harvey Holt, the ex-Marine, leads the gang down the familiar paths of Hemingway, I wish the novelist had stopped when he was ahead.
Harper’s Magazine Press, $5.95
Ever since he edited the undergraduate newspaper at the University of Texas, Willie Morris has communicated his inquiring, fighting spirit in words, and when he writes about his hometown, Yazoo, on the edge of the Mississippi Delta, there is no reporter who can touch him. He went back for repeated visits beginning in January, 1970, when the most recent Supreme Court decision on education had made the integration of the public schools mandatory. For fifteen years Yazoo, with its population of 11,000, had evaded the issue; now integration would be enforced, and he felt that he must watch what would happen. He was well aware of what the white attitude had been: even before his Rhodes Scholarship, he had pleaded with the White Citizens Council “to surrender some part of what they cherish—namely complete social segregation,” and when in the late sixties he addressed the all-black high school, a white woman showed her contempt by asking, “Who were you talkin’ to? The little niggers didn’t understand you.” He knew that his book North Toward Home had disturbed the town and been resented, and he had the premonition that he would meet there on his home ground a violent death.
The record of what he found is a very human document, with its flashes of courage, bigotry, mean taunts, and hopeful compromise. The evasion and prejudice were still in evidence among the older whites, but against them was the steady pressure of economic boycott and voter registration applied by the blacks, and what was equally important, the recognition by the more liberal leaders of the community that change was inevitable and might be for the better.
Mr. Morris’ characterization of the purposeful figures at the heart of the action are colorful and ring true.
Here is Harold “Hardwood” Kelley, the basketball coach under whom Willie had played, now superintendent of the city school system, saying, “This is a complete social revolution. . . . [our segregated classrooms] have been based on educational reasons”; Bubba Mott, the editor of the Yazoo Herald, saying, “If Yazoo City can be the example I think it can be—to have a town in the best interests of all the citizens, if this can be made to work anywhere in America, it will be made here”; Father Malcolm O’Leary, who calls himself a “black Irishman,” rector of the Negro Catholic Church, saying. “The bad part’s all been on the surface”; Owen Cooper, the most powerful businessman in town and one of the state’s leading Baptists, changing the whole morale of his chemical company when he wakes up to the realization that blacks and whites have to live together; Rudy Shields, the activist and protégé of Charles Evers, saying, “I think these young whites here—say under the age of twenty-five—are going to try to make this work.”
The most telling testimony comes from the young, as Robert Coles has told us in his books. In the first days of the integration of the high school, the blacks were taunted and insulted, but when they laughed it off, it lessened, and as one of the boys said, “I think the younger black children will be able to get along with whites much easier. They don’t feel inferior, not the way we did when we were children.”
Morris has dedicated his book to his young son David, whom he took to Gettysburg while it was being written. At the store close to where Longstreet had set up his artillery, David wanted a present for himself and deliberated between a gray infantry hat, and a blue one, which he finally put on his head. “Why did you pick the blue hat instead of the gray one?” Willie asked. And his son replied. “Because I don’t want to be nobody’s slave.” Quite truly this is a family book about a family that must learn to live with itself.
MEMORIES by Julian Huxley Harper & Row, $8.50
Julian Huxley was the oldest of the three grandsons of the famous biologist and champion of Darwin, Thomas H. Huxley, and the genius of that disturbing rebel skipped a generation to settle in unequal portions in the three boys. They were each of them nervous and highstrung, given to fits of depression— Trevelyan, the middle boy, killed himself—and Julian and Aldous had physical disabilities which kept them out of the 1914 trenches, Aldous, indeed, had lost the sight of one eye completely as the result of an infection when he was at Oxford. Both were deeply disturbed by the senseless slaughter of their generation, and after the Armistice of 1918, each was to gain in confidence and achievement, Julian for his discoveries in biology, Aldous for the originality and scalding satire of his novels.
In his Memories Julian Huxley has freshly recaptured his youthful days, when he was impressionable and wanted explanations. Flora and fauna, and particularly birds, became an obsession, and at Eton, although he felt attracted to the handsomest boy in school, he made little effort at sociability and to his dismay was ejected by the small mess of sixthformers with whom he was supposed to breakfast. It was the joy of the stars that “filled my heart like a revelation,” he writes, and it was in this other world that he fell in love with a girl he calls “K,” athletic, ardent, and physically more mature than himself. Julian was alternately attracted and repulsed; their engagement simmered for two years until broken, and through it he was so “repelled by the sexuality of the action” that he would walk the night hours in self-torture.
At Oxford he began to gain his peace of mind; he won a Zoological scholarship at Balliol when, required to write an essay on the subject “What would you do if you had a million pounds?", he proposed buying up as much as possible of the unspoiled coastline of Britain. For all of his avid interest in the natural world, he also acquired the reputation of a poet, and when he won the Newdigate Prize, spent the money on a microscope.
In 1912 at the age of twenty-five he was offered the Chair of Biology in the newly created Rice Institute in Houston, and in appreciative pages he shows how his horizons broadened in the new world: bird-watching was in its infancy, and through his powerful glasses, the discoveries he made of the mutual courtship and the display of a bird as spectacular as the great crested grebe brought him to the attention of the learned societies. His studies and friendships carried him from Texas to Avery Island in Louisiana, to the Bighorn Mountains in Wyoming, and to Woods Hole, and at each stop his scholarship was augmented by new findings. Then conscience called him home to do what he could in the war.
His marriage to Juliette Baillot, a French-Swiss girl from Neuchâtel, got off to a tepid start, in which she accused him of being more interested in the courtship of grebes than in herself. But her sense of humor and intelligence have been a sustaining force throughout their half century of marriage, particularly in the difficult postwar years when he was lecturing at Oxford, exploring the Arctic in the expeditions to Spitsbergen, and collaborating with the hard-driving H. G. Wells in the writing of The Science of Life. Like his grandfather, he had the gift for exposition and a mind ceaselessly searching. In East Africa he was struck by the abundance of scarlet flowers. “Why all this scarlet brilliance? I asked myself—when suddenly I realized that sun-birds are common here, and that birds can see red.” His travels, his development of the London Zoo, his early advocacy of birth control in a broadcast which so infuriated the director of the BBC are instances of his far-ranging perception, of which he writes with such clarity in a volume embracing his first forty-five years.