Sunday, May 03, 2009

Sunday Warbooks: Tales Of the South Pacific

A review of Tales Of the South Pacific, by James Michener.

A collection of tales not so much of war itself but of the ordinary men who waged war, and how the war (and the South Pacific) changed them. This book, written in 1947, won the Pulitzer Prize, and deservedly so. It's utterly readable and timeless. Indeed, Michener's narrator evokes prescient shades of Catch-22's 1961 absurdist hero Yossarian in the opening piece. Unable to express what he did in the war, he tells a gruff, glory-loving major about what island life was like:
"Why, hell!" the major snorted. "Seems all he did was sit on his ass and wait!"

"That's exactly it!" I cried, happy to find at least someone who knew what I was talking about.
Easily more than the sum of its parts, this collection of stories is an eye-opening account of life in wartime: not the horrors of war (though there's a bit of that), but the waiting, the selfless heroism, the bottled-up passion, the thankless endless toil, the vast logistics of a campaign, the suddenness of death and loss and love.

Why did it take me until I was 38 years old to read this book? The omission of this work from the typical academic canon is utterly incomprehensible to me; it’s everything that the more boring and less complete in scope All Quiet On the Western Front is said to be, and more.

Michener is far more than a captivating storyteller, collector of colorful characters, painter of vivid natural imagery, and chronicler of the orchestrations of world warfare. Each of the "tales" comprising his carefully-constructed epic narrative is thematically and stylistically related to the other smaller narratives and at the same time artistically whole in itself. While he does have poetic phrases at his command, what he can say without saying it --- a subtly omitted word or a hint --- is breathtaking.

Michener impresses with his vast understanding of the scope of a military operation, as in the chapter “Alligator” (the codename for a fictitious invasion) --- the planning, the estimated casualties, the number of hospital beds needed, the men needed to build landing strips and docks and housing, the men needed simply to replace pencils and paper for plans, and on and on --- and then he finishes with a few brief, poignant lines of a man who wrote to a plain woman ("who would never be married in a hundred years anyway") a proposal:
"You was very sweet to me and I want to tell you if I…"

But he didn't. Some don't.
But, Michener says, that last letter plus the one from the chaplain was almost as good as being married.

That talent of Michener’s, the ability to juggle the big picture with the little human details, the forgotten grunts, the KIA and the faceless laborers, just blows me away. With every paragraph he weaves a new story of heroism, or efficiency, or defiance, or laziness, or lust, or bravery, or shame, and every character is all too human and believable. It makes the climax of the book, the landing at the island of Kuralei, all the more moving, as his narrator surveys the littered beaches and mourns the dead.

This book is quite simply a brilliant masterpiece that should be read by every student of American history; it may be fiction, but it shows more plainly why this was known as the "Greatest Generation," without hagiography or needless embellishment. They did what they were asked to do, and worked and complained and loved and died, and they weren't saints or the ultimate soldiers. They were Americans, is all.


Sunday warbooks scoreboard:

Greco-Persian wars: 2
WWI: 2
Vietnam: 2
Iraq wars: 2
Afghanistan war: 1
General warfare: 2

1 comment:

Michael5000 said...

Well, damn, that's a big recommendation, but there's no room at all on the short list or the medium list. I guess it goes on the vauguer long list, though...