2.24.2017

The Drifters by James Michener

"Revolutionaries do not have to be paupers."
"They rarely are," I growled. 


Despite being one of 20th Century America's best-selling authors, Michener has barely any online presence at all. His wikis are sparse, and there is no online go-to Michener resource that lists all of his works, characters, themes, and (most especially) real-world analogs or rationale for the composites for his historical fiction. I joined the James Michener Society on Facebook hoping for such a thing, but it's not a very active site. Goodreads has plenty of fan reviews, but these can be hit or miss, especially for the kind of info I'm looking for.

Had I world enough and time, I'd make developing and maintaining such a thing a personal goal. He's a bit out of fashion, perhaps, but the man's work deserves it. I have, however, neither world nor time, so the best I can manage is a few blogs here and there as I make my way through the man's work.

Which brings us to:
 
(1971, Random House)

I mentioned that some of Michener's wikis are sparse. That isn't the case for this particular one. Here's how its plot is described over there

"The novel follows six young characters from diverse backgrounds and various countries as their paths meet and they travel together through parts of Spain, Portugal, Morocco and Mozambique. The story is told from the perspective of the narrator, George Fairbanks, who is an investment analyst for the fictional company World Mutual Bank in Switzerland. Mr. Fairbanks is connected with nearly every character in some way, and they all seem to open up to him throughout the novel in one way or another." 

I originally intended to cover this as one of ten books in a planned "Ten by Michener" post, but I ended up with enough quotes and things I wanted to talk about to warrant its own post.

Let's start with "Mr. Fairbanks." Would the novel be better-served by removing this character altogether? He's obviously Michener's real-life stand-in, i.e. the old man talking to these 60s kids, who are all drawn from real people, too. Which is fine. But as a dramatic construct, the Mr. Fairbanks character is ridiculous. He's fine as the lens through which we see all events, and I always appreciate Michener's over-my-shoulder perspective and historical perspective as events unfold. But a) I just don't buy these kids would adopt (or interact with) him the way they do, b) he is simply a device to move these characters from place to place, some of which seem wildly unrealistic for these kids to get to, c) the attempts to distinguish Mr. Fairbanks from real-world Michener (Fairbanks went to the University of Virginia and not Swarthmore, etc.) fall completely flat. 

And d) as a character, he's not just never well-realized. He's had a fallout with his son, for example - we never learn why, nor is there any reconciliation, nor do we ever meet him or learn anything about his mother, etc. It's just there to half-justify why he's taking the considerable time he's taking with these younguns.

There is one other justification: one of the characters (Monica) is the daughter of an old friend, whom he's promised to look after. This is the most serious problem with the book. The relationship between Monica and Fairbanks is largely one of convenience and neglect. When he (Fairbanks) attempts to analyze why he makes no attempt to arrest her self-destructive behavior (besides knowing how ineffective such an attempt would be, which, to his credit, he realizes) he goes into an aloof aside about Lady Jane Digby, a lady of eccentricity who flaunted the conventions of her era to do as she will. 


Thing is, I have no doubt Lady Digby did inspire the character of Monica, or perhaps the real-world inspiration for Monica made Michener think of Lady Digby, but it's an awful excuse for letting his friend's daughter - whom he's pledged to look after - sink to the levels of depravity she does, leading ultimately to her death after much abuse. This - Fairbanks' failure and what it says, both about the generation gap to which the author has pledged himself - should be brought into the light and made an explicit theme of the book. Instead, Monica's tragedy, while certainly felt by all the characters, is not internalized by Fairbanks (or Michener) anywhere close to how it should be. 

Nevertheless, the presence of a Michener stand-in here allows for some very insightful remarks about more than just the young people turning the world upside down in the 1960s but, remarkably and admirably, of our own era as well:

"The new generation was so convinced of its values that it judged us older people, not by our standards but by their own. I was a flop, but if they had got to me forty years ago, I might have been redeemed. This attitude angered me, because although I saw their manifest weaknesses, I never felt that if they had had my education they might have been saved. They needed desperately some of the things I had acquired; surely Joe's problems would have been simpler had he seen history as I did, and Cato never would never have invaded the church had he acquired my attitudes toward social change but never in my arrogance did I believe that I could have saved these young fellows by training them in my own pattern. It was this arrogance of youth, this precious insolence that set them apart."

Talitha and John Paul Getty, "Marrakesh Chic," 60s.

That one resonated with me because if I'm being absolutely honest, I wonder sometimes if I do think that sort of thing about training people in my own pattern. It's pleasant to be reminded that this is a mistake, just part of the glaucoma of aging, that maybe my increasing exasperation with the reactions and ignorance of "the kids today" isn't as severe or urgent as it sometimes seems to me. Another way of putting that: it's perfectly fine and natural for the young to be possessed with an over-abundance of the seemingly contradictory qualities of ignorance and arrogance.

"I'm sixty one. I'm not in jail. I'm not nuts. I figure I'm ahead of the game. I'm an old man, encrusted with all the errors and abuses of my age. I carry the stamp of my education - automatic patriotism, a certain attitude toward women, a belief in contracts, faith in the ideals that were prevalent in 1932, and were proven so dreadfully wrong."

Or how about these thoughts on "the Haymakers," Michener's stand-in for the SLA / the Weathermen?

"The Haymakers, most of them under thirty, were committed to the total destruction of American society, nothing less. Their program was simple: move into every disturbed situation, exacerbate it, allow it no time to stabilize, sponsor anarchy, and rely upon the resulting turmoil to radicalize the young people. When a sufficient cadre of able young people had been converted into dedicated revolutionaries, large mass movements would be initiated to tear down the social structure: banks would be discredited, the National Guard immobilized, universities destroyed, and the usefulness of social agencies like newspapers and television stations neutralized."

When Michener wrote that, he might have been more aware than his audience, given his abiding interest in the cyclical patterns and passions of history and people, that he was speaking of something true to ages beyond the 1960s. Certainly it resonates with its era, but (making some allowances) this was as true in 9th century Byzantium as it was in 1969, or in 2017.

Another such thing: the irony of the first "atomic" generation rejecting science and "the establishment" in favor of ancient lore and folk music, astrology and numerology. 


"What you're doing is gambling that the economic system which men like me organize and keep going will be elastic and secure enough to enable you to enter it on your own terms, grab off a little cash, and return to your six-month vacation."

"Exactly. With one correction. The system exists primarily for your benefit. You don't run the system for us. You run it for yourself. But in order to keep it functioning, you need our work and our consuming. You need us as much as we need you."

Let's look at the novel's other characters, starting with the young people and ending with Fairbanks' tech-man contemporary, Harvey Hoyt. 

Joe is the novel's stand-in for the young, white conscientious objector. He was "radicalized," so to speak, although he's never quite a radical, by watching his college roommate get beaten for burning his draft card and by the inequities built into the college deferment system in general. ("A man cannot cooperate indefinitely with an immoral situation without becoming contaminated. And I do not intend to contaminate myself.") 

Joe's okay - kind of a blah character compared to his companions, but he's realistic enough. At least until the novel gets to Marrakesh, whereupon everything he gets into and everything alluded to after the novel closes (driving the VW-pop tart across Europe and Asia to Japan) loses me completely. I will say this, though; the name of the book is The Drifters, and Joe is exactly what a drifter looks, sounds, and feels like.


This, though, from the first chapter we meet him, speaks to me muchly: "He shied away from exhibitionism. To stand in a conspicuous group while girl students were chanting 'The answer is blowing in the wind' would be ridiculous. That was out."

I think Joe would hate 2017.

Britta is a girl from Norway who simply wants to live in the sunshine. She moves to Torremolinos in Spain to escape the drudgery of her home in the Arctic Circle. She's another character who's perfectly fine - her concerns and remarks are all reasonable and she is not reactionary in the slightest - until Michener makes the odd decision of having her fall in love or at least pledge eternal devotion to Harvey Hoyt. This seemed... massively unrealistic to me. Or at least should have been examined a little more. Part of her background is rebellion (of a sort) against her father, a former anti-Nazi resistance fighter who has surrendered to a life of daydreaming about Ceylon (aka Sri Lanka). That the novel ends with her going off with a man her father's age to Ceylon is remarked upon, ever so slightly, but its more Freudian implications seem left to one side. This seems an evasion to me.

Perhaps it's just that it seems like the conclusion only an older man would reach - oh, he's exactly what someone like Britta would need. Maybe so. But I don't buy that the character would come to the same conclusion at the point in her life the novel depicts. It was a real left turn for me.

Gretchen is probably the character I liked the least. It's not really her (or Michener's) fault, it's just that the Cantabrigian well-to-do intellectually-insulated folk-singing chanteuse who tucks her bare feet under her legs and brushes her hair away before leaning into the microphone to say "Child 231" (referring to the name of the man who excavated the folk music she's learned, a nod to Pete Seeger's Appalachian-music-excavations) is someone I try to avoid in fiction, life, or otherwise.

It's like what Stephen King said about Joan Didion's 60s experience; having your mental breakdown in a spa (or traipsing around Europe and Africa, as Gretchen does, with her inheritance) is a whole different kettle of 60s fish. 


Monica is the beautiful daughter of an aristocratic British-Africa family, the kind being systematically removed when they didn't leave on their own accord across the continent in the 60s (and other decades). She's both a cautionary example of the danger inherent in the 60s rebellion(s) and a realistic psychological sketch (as was Ellen Jasper in Caravans) of a sizable amount of white daughters "of privilege," rejecting everything associated with it and dressing it up in slogans but slowly losing her grip on reality altogether. 

"It was ironic: children of the affluent classes sitting in Haifa cellars or Vwarda * bungalows and and listening to laments about murderers, bank robbers, bums, revolutionaries and motorcycle Robin Hoods, all chanted by unshaven young men in dungarees who earned a million dollars a year." 

* The fictional post-colonial African republic from which Monica hails.

Cato. Michener is hit-or-miss with Cato, the young black son of a preacher in Philadelphia. Mostly hit, though - he's a well-drawn enough character, all the more surprising given the author's age and demographic. But that's what makes Michener a great writer; he doesn't only hear what he wants to hear. That said, several of Fairbanks' "straight talks" with Cato (such as happens after a visit to the mausoleum of Moulay Ismail, one of the great mass murderers of history) would certainly make classrooms uncomfortable in 2017. Good! History is a fascinating nightmare riddle.

Or when he somewhat harshly cuts Cato down to size after Monica cruelly (but inevitably) dumps him. Not that Cato listens. Which seems realistic. After converting to Islam and a visit to Mecca, Cato returns to the States, presumably to join the agitating ranks of the Nation of Islam. A

Mozambique in the 60s.

Yigal, last of the youths, is a young man caught between Israel, Britain, and the United States. Michener somewhat improbably has him as a 15-year-old in a tank commander crew during the Six Day War (in what sounds like a fictionalization of one of the Egyptian/Israeli battles at Mitla Pass during one of their armed conflicts) but no matter. 

In some ways, Yigal could probably be excised from The Drifters and not be missed much. But Michener deftly contrasts the vertical mobility of Jews in America, being the same color as the WASPs holding all the power up to that point in US history, with that denied to black Americans, for whom no amount of assimilation can compensate. The hostility Cato visits upon Yigal is uncomfortable, but it's a very real part of the Jewish/black relationship in America, and Michener was right to include it. 

Yigal's midnight visit to Petra - punishable by death if he was discovered - was a rite of passage for young Israelis in the 50s and 60s, and probably beforehand, too.


Finally, there's Harvey Holt, a character who only first appears in the ninth chapter, or several hundred pages into things. He makes that particular entry because it is right before Chapter 9 that the youths, on Fairbanks urging, decide to go to Pamplona fort he festival of San Fermín (i.e. the running of the bulls.) So Michener stops everything and introduces us to Hoyt, an old friend of Fairbanks and a "tech man" on radars in remote locations who has lived everywhere from Afghanistan to Sumatra to Thailand. "That lineal descendant of the gifted wagon maker who can't get along with his neighbors in Pennsylvania but is invaluable on the frontier."

I appreciate much of what Harvey has to say, and I imagine the author speaks through his mouth on more than one occasion. He's basically only in the book so he and Fairbanks can commiserate on what a bunch of spoiled brat losers these kids are, even if they kinda like them. Much is made (as only make sense for an era which required so much more thought, expense, and expertise in having portable music of any kind) of his music tapes and his sound system, and (motif alert) the music of Bea Wain and Enoch Light is used to demonstrate the generation gap between men of Fairbanks/Hoyt's generation and the youths.

"It's protest against things you don't understand... destruction against things you do."


It is only when the youths (the heathens) are sitting around trashing Glenn Miller and Casablanca and Hoyt and Fairbanks gets so angry that I suddenly realized how effective it was to include this character, even if I thought Britta's falling for him was highly improbable. By contrasting the relationship between men of his generation had with the pop culture of his (the WW2) era with the youths and their own Dylan-and-Donovan/like-wow pop culture, we see the generation gap for what it is: simultaneously insurmountable and completely arbitrary.  

"He lived an intense emotional life which appeared on casual inspection to have been structured upon the films made by Humphrey Bogart and Spencer Tracy. Actually, it was the other way around: American life in those years was so clear-cut, the national values so well agreed upon, that films mirrored the consensus-type of life Hoyt led. Instead of his aping Tracy and Bogart, they were copying him. Art thus followed life, which is the preferred sequence; today art, especially popular music, invents new patterns which students follow in enthralled obedience."

The Drifters is filled with such passages - great insights into Western civilization, psychology, men, women, age, youth, and the simpler and more pleasurable things like sunsets, groovy tunes, and sex. Michener wrote it to explain the younger generation to his own peers - and to us. If I quibble with some of his artistic choices/ characters, or even the wisdom of some of his conclusions, I remain in awe of his ability to communicate

5 comments:

  1. (1) It strikes me as odd that there are no go-to Michener sources online; I tend to assume that EVERYTHING has at least three or four websites which are slavishly devoted to cataloguing minutiae about the topic. But this is obviously a perception that holds little to no water. And the fact likely is that Michener's fans are too old to be of the type to build websites (even if they are relatively simple blogs). I'm sure Michener isn't alone; last time I looked, there wasn't much out there on Larry McMurtry, for example. It's kind of a bummer. I like to think that virtually everything has a perpetual supply of rabid fans, and that's probably not true. It'd be a shame for a guy like Michener to fade into obscurity; but these things do happen.

    (2) Regarding Mr. Fairbanks, I guess even a pro like Michener is prone to writing the occasional piece of wish-fulfillment. I get the impulse.

    (3) "Another way of putting that: it's perfectly fine and natural for the young to be possessed with an over-abundance of the seemingly contradictory qualities of ignorance and arrogance." -- Hmm. Lots of food for thought there. I suspect you're right on the money. For one thing, it's natural for the young to feel as if their generation is the first to ever actually BE young; because, shit, from their perspective it's true. And it's natural for the aging to resent it because the passing of youth surely must come as a surprise to everyone to whom it happens. You might know it's going to happen, but you never actually FEEL it is going to happen, and even once it's happened you feel as if it must be some sort of mistake.

    (4) I appreciate seeing all these book covers. One of them -- the one on the right just after the bit about the atomic generation -- is one that's very familiar to me from having seen it in used bookstores all the time as a younger man. Browsing those stores is one of the fondest of my various fond memories, and since there were always tons of Michener books lying around, I've got a weird nostalgia for his books despite having never read -- or even bought -- a single one of them.

    (5) "What you're doing is gambling that the economic system which men like me organize and keep going will be elastic and secure enough to enable you to enter it on your own terms, grab off a little cash, and return to your six-month vacation." -- I mean, that could be an official creed describing millennials, couldn't it?

    (6) This doesn't strike me as the kind of novel for which it would be necessary to create a fake African country. I mean, if your story requires vibranium and a king, you create Wakanda. Go for it. But "The Drifters" seems like it just doesn't need that sort of thing.

    (7) "He lived an intense emotional life which appeared on casual inspection to have been structured upon the films made by Humphrey Bogart and Spencer Tracy. Actually, it was the other way around: American life in those years was so clear-cut, the national values so well agreed upon, that films mirrored the consensus-type of life Hoyt led. Instead of his aping Tracy and Bogart, they were copying him. Art thus followed life, which is the preferred sequence; today art, especially popular music, invents new patterns which students follow in enthralled obedience." -- This paragraph makes me want to read this novel. For my part, I think the art/life dynamic probably rotates continuously, with one being ascendant for a time and then the other and back and forth. But personally, I don't think there's a hard line drawn between the two; they are essentially one and the same. After all, art can only come -- until the robots really take over -- from one place, and that is from life. So how can art not actually BE life in some way? But it's a topic well worth continual exploration.

    Great post! I'm glad you're here to give me a peek into what was on the shelves of those used bookstores thirty years ago.

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    1. (1) It's true, isn't it? I can only imagine how Gustave Flaubert fans must feel... (Actually, I haven't googled; for all I know, "The Flaubert Society" is a popular internet hub.)

      (2) I definitely feel the novel would've been better served excising Fairbanks and writing it all in the 3rd person. I'll add this to my list of The Time Traveling Editor With Lots of Opinions adventure series ideas.

      (3) Absolutley. Like, it's totally fine and natural for kids to be this way, and for 40-somethings to feel another, etc. All of this has happened before and will happen again. And I thought of King's into to the revised Gunslinger, too: it's good to be arrogant at 19 because life knocks you down and around and it's good to start with more than you need so your ego has enough to sustain itself after the winnowing.

      (4) Amen.

      (5) Amen again. (And to be fair, it's how I felt at 18-25-ish, too.)

      (6) This is the sort of thing I'd love to check an official Michener site for, exactly! He does this something and I'm just like "What? So confusing, why?" I'll talk about this more specifically in a few future posts, but yeah, the 1960s situation in Africa (and down around South Africa, which gets some tantalizing foreshadowing in the Mozambique section) was fascinating and perhaps it gave him more room to maneuver if he just made up a country, I don't know. I thought the same thing with the one Bond book, too - Carte Blanche was it? Sheesh I already forgot. But yeah - if it's obviously Nigeria/ Biafra, why change it? (shrugs) Maybe they just think it's fun.

      (7) Agreed completely.

      Glad you enjoyed! Thanks for the extensive remarks.

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    2. (3) That's a great essay by King. I myself never really had that arrogance when I was in my college days. I wish I had! I could have put that shit to use.

      (6) "Carte Blanche" actually came to mind while I was reading this post. I thought it was a bit odd there, too, but here it just seems full-bore weird. Maybe less so if you read it, though...?

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  2. Interesting take by Michener on the 60s generation.

    When it comes to the kids these days, I'll admit I have some concerns, but thankfully they are minor.

    I tend to wonder if they've exposed enough to the arts, and with it, to culture in general.

    The irony while I worry about them being imaginatively stunted, I've not seen any sign that they lack anything in their moral outlook. I genuinely think they've easily absorbed a lot of the values of the 60s generation, whether they know it or not.

    Whatever the values of the 60s (an interesting book is Theodore Roszak's "The Making of a Counter-Culture") they seem to be the dominant form for the most part.

    I haven't seen anything that tells me things will trend the other way, really. In fact, it is possible that the last of Michener's era are finally on the way out, perhaps accompanied by one last "rage against the dying of the light".

    If so, then the future should be very interesting.

    ChrisC

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    1. Haven't read the Roszak book but have heard about it for years. One of these days!

      I have the same faith that tomorrow will keep coming as any human of any generation. I would like to see the media-academe cultural marxism challenged more. I hope that it is it that is finally on the way out and that some of the agitation we've seen in this regard over the past few years represents the rage against the dying of the light to which you refer!

      But, more likely, all of this has happened before and will happen anon.

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