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The Fittest Survive, But Fit for What? : TO THE WHITE SEA, By James Dickey ( Houghton Mifflin: $22.95; 275 pages )

September 19, 1993|Richard Wiley | Richard Wiley is the winner of the PEN/Faulkner Award for "Soldiers in Hiding," set in Japan. His fifth novel, "Ahmed's Revenge," will appear next year

James Dickey makes novels out of ideas. In "Deliverance," 23 years ago, the idea was to take four men, each representing various degrees of self-reliance, and see what happens to them when, during a canoe trip down a wild river, the laws of civilization break down. As it turned out, the toughest of those men, a character named Lewis who must have had a bomb shelter full of weapons and canned goods in his back yard, was the prototype for Sgt. Muldrow, the narrative voice driving James Dickey's new novel, "To the White Sea."

As this new work opens it is early March of 1945, and Muldrow, a tail gunner, is preparing for one of the last missions over Tokyo before the great fire bombings that preceded the end of the war. Muldrow is a man of precise preparations, attention to every detail. He shaves before each mission so that his oxygen mask will fit more tightly on his face, he secures his survival kit to his abdomen under his uniform, he conceals a bread knife down by his boot and he tapes one of the crew's parachutes to the inside wall of the airplane. It is because of this last preparation that Muldrow survives.

Almost as soon as the mission begins his plane is shot out of the air, unsecured parachutes and unprepared men fly out into the night, and while the plane is twirling through the air, Muldrow rips the one remaining chute from the fuselage, bullies himself into it, and floats down into wartime Tokyo unseen, where his parachute hangs up on a dockyard crane. The ongoing bombing allows Muldrow to get down off the crane and find a sewer in which to hide. He tells us, "The smell put my eyes out. I mean it hit my eyeballs like the worst light . . . but it was a hole and I could go into it if I wanted to. I took another match and lit it, though I knew that sewers could blow up. That would be something, I told myself . . . ."

Since Muldrow was raised on the slopes of the Brooks Range in Alaska and knows how to survive in freezing weather, he decides that he will make his way from Tokyo all the way up to Japan's northern island of Hokkaido, where, if he can find similar terrain to that of the Brooks Range, namely ice and snow, he knows he will be safe.

What a fine beginning this book has! It is exciting and precisely written. Lucky for Muldrow the fire bombing starts almost immediately after his descent, so he is able to take advantage of the wild confusion to begin his run. And his sense of observation is as detailed as his preparation had been. He notices that the Japanese walk bent over with their eyes on the ground so he blackens his face with ash from a burning wall and walks the same way. He is so wily and his senses are so well-tuned, in fact, that just watching him get out of Tokyo makes us understand that even Lewis from "Deliverance" would be dead in the first half-hour or so.

It is when the killing starts that Dickey shows us that this is no mere adventure novel. It is not about one man's escape from the land of his enemies, but is a kind of treatise on the nature of modern humankind. Muldrow kills a lot of people. He kills one man for his shoes and a couple of others for the clothing they wear. He kills a gentle man for the feathers of the swans he tends, and he battles an old blind Samurai for the food and other items that he might be able to find in the old man's house.

As the journey north progresses, however, we begin to see that the central question of the novel is not, "How will this man survive?" but "What kind of man is this who is surviving so well?" This is what Muldrow says about the rest of us: "I will tell anybody who hears me say this, look around you and be honest with yourself. For most of you fight is not in you, and never has been."

Fair enough. Most of us know that the ancient torch that illuminated the cave wall and showed us the words, survival of the fittest written there has died within us. And Dickey uses great skill to keep us off balance where the nature of Muldrow's character is concerned. Each time he kills, the killing is arguably necessary. He shows absolutely no compassion, except where animals are concerned, but he isn't gratuitously mean or overly violent either.

In one of his many dreams about the Brooks Range Muldrow says, "It was night now, another night. Snow again, a slope down to a long valley almost like a tunnel. Caribou were in it again, moving through the valley, but I was not one of them. I was on a hill with some others like me, watching them, waiting for the time to move . . . going down in twos and threes when the stragglers fell back, and when we knew enough."

Muldrow, then, is a wolf, a predator in Japanese clothes, and let loose in peace time, anywhere on the earth, he would surely have been a murderer, an animal with a calculating and uncompassionate mind.

When I began this book I expected that it would be about Japan, but it is not. Dickey could have set the book in a wide variety of places with the same result. And by the end of the book the questions concerning Muldrow are answered, the balance is broken--the break is right there in the story for us to find if we can--and I, at least, found myself not so much rooting for Muldrow's success, as for his failure, which would then leave room for the evolution of civilization and thus for ordinary people like me.

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