The Walnut Door
“O rare John Hersey!” So Rex Stout, the late mystery writer and longtime friend of Hersey, is said to have exclaimed one evening.
Indeed, he is. Drawing on his experiences as a war correspondent for Time and Life magazines in both the Pacific and European Theaters during World War II, he began to write a steady stream of distinguished books. It was his third book on the war, A Bell for Adano, published in 1944 and the winner of the 1945 Pulitzer Prize for fiction, that established him as a major American writer. A Bell for Adano is a novel about American idealism during the occupation of Italy, written at a time when the American idealistic vision was still clear, when we still believed that we had the moral power and duty to help set the rest of the world straight. It might seem to be a slightly naïve book today, but it is a novel about its time, with the flavor of its time, and it spoke to its time. Like most of Hersey’s work, it is a topical novel, but, like many of his books, it is good enough to have survived the time for which it spoke; it is an important book in Hersey’s now long career for another reason. The idealism that it portrays, without denying the ugliness of war, helped establish Hersey’s position as a purveyor of hope and compassion at about the time that his generation of young American writers were mostly turning in the other direction, and ushering in what might be called the age of cynicism and disillusionment into American literature.
Hersey’s fourth book was nonfiction about the end of the war, and the beginning of the nuclear age. Hiroshima, appearing in 1946 after first being published as an entire issue of The New Yorker, hit the public with an impact second only to that of the first news of the bomb itself. This documentary needed none of the preaching that Hersey has sometimes been accused of doing. Its message is never spelled out—it is implicit on every page.
From these two triumphs, one fiction and one nonfiction, Hersey has gone on, never looking back, producing both fiction and nonfiction, never repeating himself, maintaining a high standard of intentions, although the books themselves, as will the combined work of any prolific writer, have varied in their degree of success at attaining those high standards.
As is probably inevitable, the standards themselves may have changed some. Hersey’s idealism may or may not have diminished; it has certainly become tougher, and nowhere is this more apparent than in his latest novel, The Walnut Door. This novel is not completely successful, because of the ambiguous handling of its several themes, the seemingly incomplete portrayal of its two main characters, and a plot line that is too obviously manipulated and, therefore, somewhat implausible. Nevertheless, the novel is entertaining, a serious book with some funny lines that uses a very original situation to tell a story that is an unusual mixture of the love, suspense, and psychological novel.
Hersey’s originality and versatility cannot be overstressed because he has never been given enough credit for them. After The Wall, which may turn out to be his most popular and long-lasting novel, Hersey began, with The Marmot Drive in 1953, to experiment by mixing symbolism with his realism. For such novels as The Child Buyer (1960) and the recent My Petition for More Space (1974), he developed his own version of Orwellian speculative fiction. Too Far to Walk (1966) is fantasy, an allegory putting the Faust legend into modern dress; while his seriously underrated allegory on race relations, White Lotus (1965), is a mixture of the fantasy and Orwellian modes. He has even ventured into the historical novel with The Conspiracy, and this mostly imagined account of a first century conspiracy to murder the Roman tyrant Nero turned out to be one of his best books.
Always among his varied work, even in the case of the historical novel, there has been at least one note of consistency: a direct relevance to the times. One of the pivotal characters in The Conspiracy is the Roman poet Lucan. Lucan has the problem of trying to decide if he should get involved; he ponders the responsibility of the writer to society. The novel was published in 1972 during a time when the controversy over the role of the press in Vietnam and other Nixon Administration problems was close to its height. John Hersey has apparently never doubted whether the writer should have a role in society. He has always been involved. It is this fact that makes it hard to evaluate The Walnut Door, for in some ways, this novel seems to be a testament to noninvolvement.
Hersey has always been a strongly thematic writer. The Walnut Door darts around the fringes of several themes without totally coming to grips with any of them. It is a gentle story about the threat of and fear of violence, an occasionally funny story about two somewhat sad refugees from the campus battlegrounds of the 1960’s, a metaphorically sexual story that is not really about sex, but about the search for love and security. Like everything that Hersey writes, it is interesting, intelligent, and readable. Hersey is the...
(The entire section is 2166 words.)