James Dickey: To the White Sea

Perhaps James Dickey was best known for the novel Deliverance, which was adapted into a far more famous film version by John Boorman in 1971. What is less well known is that Dickey died a wretched alcoholic four years after the publication of To The White Sea (1993), in which US Air Force gunner Sergeant Muldrow records his bid to reach Japan’s northern island after being forced to bail out of his aircraft during a bombing raid over Tokyo in March 1945. One wonders if the resulting themes of solitary survival and self-reliance, which for all their tribulations bring something of a lucidity and singular purposefulness to Muldrow’s life, were viewed ruefully by Dickey, whose immersion in dense poetry and philosophy joined a personal life ridden with womanizing and hopeless parenting which had ruined his closest human relationships. Indeed, why not retreat to a world where human relationships are superfluous and more often than not a threat, and where success is judged wholly on whether or not one is alive, warm and nourished?

To the White Sea

The Coen Brothers claim that their intended rendering of To The White Sea, an extraordinarily cinematic novel, remains unmade due to their failure to convince anyone in Hollywood to pay for what they envision being a film without dialogue filmed on location in Japan. To accurately adapt the novel (as the Coens did in No Country For Old Men, where the dialogue matches that of Cormac McCarthy’s novel almost entirely) would require scenes of considerable brutality, for its main — and to all intents and purposes, only — human character kills with a calmness and dispassion which to accurately portray on screen could be as difficult a task as other novels famously subject to failed attempts at screen adaptations, such as McCarthy’s Blood Meridian, John Kennedy Toole’s A Confederacy Of Dunces, or  the great, “unadaptable,” The Catcher In The Rye. Yet perhaps what is most interesting about this novel is that Sergeant Muldrow never seems far from his natural habitat in these most threatening of circumstances, nor does he much develop in spite of the oscillations which affect his fortune. The portrayal we receive of him in the novel’s earliest pages is never challenged nor diminished; it is subject to definitive and repeated ratification. In that sense the novel may be said to be one dimensional, but that ought not to be read as a criticism.

The reason Muldrow is referred to as the novel’s only “human character” is that the other great character of this novel is the landscape he must overcome, having departed his aircraft on March 8, 1945 (though the date is never mentioned), when the final conventional raids on Tokyo took place before the subsequent nights’ enormous fire bombing missions, in which three hundred American aircraft pulverised the city, reducing its largely wooden structure to almost nothing. Having landed in a Tokyo shipyard and gained respite in a sewage pipe, Muldrow identifies the impending pandemonium as his chance to infiltrate frenzied fleeing crowds, escape Tokyo and head north. To that extent this is a straightforwardly plotted novel with all its components at its very heart: one man, his quest for survival, and the landscape against which he is pitted in trying to achieve it. Threats to him, such as being identified as an outsider, result in death to those who know he is there or have something he needs — clothes, shoes, and even goose feathers (Muldrow is, to say the very least, resourceful). Muldrow seldom fails to pause to imbibe his surroundings. The passages relating to his escape from Tokyo are as much about the bombardment’s effect on the city and its inhabitants as they are about his place in them.  Though that is a rarity for this novel, they see Dickey produce probably the best writing of the book.

People were running back and forth amongst the cranes, and in between the bombs I could hear them screaming and gabbling. That was the way I wanted it, sure enough, and I took off across the field toward the fire, running easy.

Here too we may be reminded of McCarthy, whose descriptions of his characters’ physical environments are unique. I’m not sure anyone but McCarthy could create this passage:

The serrate horizon of the Cascade Range stenciled a purple jag-toothed saw blade before the incarnadine residue of a sun recently gone to its reward. Eastward, the dusk by degrees gained mastery of the magma-formed landscape, obscured shadows, nullified identity.

In To The White Sea perhaps Dickey approaches these almost magisterial terms in which the land is described and the importance attached to it. The ice and snow of To The White Sea, not only in Japan but in the frequent reminiscences of Muldrow’s Alaskan upbringing, is more redolent of the milky whiteness which befalls those in Jose Saramago’s Blindness. See here, for example, Dickey’s rendering of the landscape.

What a thing that was: the only color in the world, a new color, with life in it, the life in the heart of ice, which came clear when everything between it and us tore off, slid, and fell.

There are evident differences in prose style, but at the core of these excerpts are landscape and environment as characters in themselves and the oneness between events and the arenas in which they take place.  McCarthy’s sun has a reward, his dust has mastery; Dickey’s ice has a heart.

Perhaps one challenge in writing a novel such as this — insular, fiercely real — is that deviation from the matter of fact can seem unnecessary. One of Muldrow’s few human encounters takes place at a Buddhist retreat upon which he stumbles. There he meets an American with whom a somewhat deep philosophical discussion takes place (“What you call time is nothing but a convenience. A clock is just a machine. Real time is different from that.”). This jars somewhat in a novel dependent on sparse prose, especially closely following as it does the most violent episode of the whole novel. A disturbance to the novel’s cadence is the combined effect of these two occurrences, tempting the reader towards the view that Dickey, who graduated in philosophy, felt he had to include something to indicate a certain greater depth to Muldrow. This needn’t be necessary. Every event concerns him, every observation is his own. He is the novel. This is such deep immersion in Muldrow that no embellishment is required. Additionally, Muldrow’s comfort in his surroundings combined with such rare human intervention in his affairs result in what might be viewed as a lack of suspense in such a tale of life and death. That said, an explanation for that is Muldrow’s ability to calmly and rationally assess all that takes place around him; the kind of disquiet and unrest he would have to display if suspense was to be a key factor in this novel would risk dilution of his character. On the subject of suspense, of which he knew a thing or two, Alfred Hitchcock said that “the more left to the imagination, the more the excitement.” Muldrow doesn’t leave anything to the imagination. By Hitchcock’s measure, he is no fit candidate for suspense.

To The White Sea is not about the war, particularly, though it is a good thing that Dickey set it as the book’s backdrop, however, as the accounts of various aspects of military life in its early pages are highly convincing. Nor is the novel really about Japan, whose human society does little other than confuse Muldrow and is, in any case, to be avoided. For a novel where killing is so important one would also question whether it is much about human morality, as Muldrow’s entire goal is to separate himself from the kind of moral considerations which might lead him to fail to kill those who his situation demands must die. His is a sociopathy which is necessary for survival. He takes no delight in killing — he neither enjoys it nor does it trouble him — but it is highly necessary. Muldrow’s is almost a journey down the evolutionary chain to the level of an animal capable only of following its instincts. To see him flourish so is perhaps the best indicator of what this novel is about: what sort of man does it take to survive such strife? What exactly is his fate should he successfully complete his journey To The White Sea? He is fit for survival, but what else?

Dickey took twenty three years to write three novels. To The White Sea was his last and given his age and health he likely knew it. One rather gets the feeling that he intended to make it count.

One thought on “James Dickey: To the White Sea

  1. leroyhunter says:

    I read the book many years ago, inspired by the possibility of the Coens filming it. It is powerful, and I remember a lot of it clearly, but it left me feeling somewhat dissatisfied, and I think the “definitive and repeated ratification” you identify (outstandingly put!) is at the root of that. There is a stasis in the centre of the book that belies the protagonist’s physical odyssey.

    The McCarthy comparisons are interesting (I hadn’t read him when I read this). It’s rare to read a book that focusses so singularly and seriously on *action* and the consequences of physical things happening or being done. David Vann alludes to that kind of thing is his books, but even there actions are webbed about by relationships, whereas here (as you note) there are essentially no recognisable human interactions beyond stalking, killing etc. I had totally forgotten the philosophical insert – just as well by the sounds of it.

    Interesting to see this book pop up after such a long time. Thanks for the review Chris.

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