James A. Mitchener is probably unparalleled when it comes to the historical aspect of his fiction. I am no historian but that is my intuitive guess. He knows dates, times, people, culture, war, and geography. He was also probably one of the most dedicated writers in any canon, with these seven hundred plus page books, and many of them. Mitchener wrote, it seems, about almost everywhere and every time. And he is utterly rational, sane, organized, sensible, and reliable when it comes to most things. The Drifters, a work about young people searching for themselves and adventure during the Vietnam era, came highly recommended. There is a new publication series of his novels, with smart and fun covers, well bound pages, and erudite introductions. I wanted to love this book, at least as an entertaining if not outright enthralling summer read. But there are some problems with the structure and content that are making me become a drifter (away from the text), and quite early at that.
I noticed right off that these are not so much chapters of a novel as short stories where the characters link, but sometimes only tenuously, and as an afterthought. I was surprised at this, because I thought that the characters would be going along together, from the start, like in an orthodox story. The people are fleshed out, yes, but mostly on their own, and apart from one another. I don’t dislike them, but nor do I feel a great sympathy towards them. That way, structure and character development seem to be lacking.
Secondly, from the first chapter onwards, characters run into a problem, be it financial, political, academic, geographic, - only to be taken out of this problem by an almost magical series of events, - a benevolent underground society of marvelous people help one character almost as if in a dream. A travel agency owner practically gives away a ticket to an exotic Spanish locale. A relative of yet another has saved money secretly to aid in the future of a man, and steps forward from the shadows to gently direct his life. Hmm…whereas the atmosphere of the locals is painted pretty well, what goes on in them, though it appears normal, is not so likely if the reader puts any thought into what is being asked of him or her to believe in the narrative.
There are other problems such as the lackluster physical scenes, of which there really aren’t any if you think about it. I don’t know what anyone thought was so juicy, then or now, in simply telling the reader that a character had sex and liked it, or didn’t like it, or sort of liked it. That is neither juicy on the one hand, or any type of literature on the other. It’s kind of, to use a term from around that time, ‘Nowhere.’
There are things that are outright mistakes. Some of Michener’s characters experiment with LSD, which is, again, outwardly historically accurate. But he shows himself up in not really knowing the innards of things when after debating how to deal with the trip, one character gets another to simply retire for the evening and sleep it off. This can’t be done on that substance, and the solution to being too drunk on beer does not transfer well when the author tries to use it, such a prosaic cure, for another, far different and more powerful drug.
And if things don’t turn around soon, that is where I am going to be with this book, neither loving it or hating it,- but just nowhere…………..
There is probably nobody that can do what Mitchener has done in terms of sheer volume. He is probably the great writer of geography, and that is not meant at all in a pejorative sense. I think the man who wrote the books about Alaska, Hawaii, Space, and everywhere else,- set down to write a book about young drifters. He himself, though obviously well traveled, gives the feeling somehow his nose was kept out of some of the trouble and adventure he writes about.
If you are going for a great outline of events, an interesting and accurate portrait of place and history, and a nice orthodox read, he is the one for you. But there is nothing really like the looking into of the human heart, the searing pain of loss, the wild bliss of spiritual experience, or any of those great themes and atmospheres that take up the pages of say a Conrad, Huxley, or one of that ilk. But perhaps we are comparing apples to oranges here.
(no matter what, I adore the cover).