James Dickey’s first two novels, Deliverance (1970) and Alnilam (1987), are narratives in an epic mode, developing archetypal quests that pit men against hostile natural and human forces over which they eventually triumph, even if only spiritually. In Deliverance, which was made into a film, four Southern suburbanites escape the mundane boredom of their daily lives by journeying down an isolated river. Relying upon all of their physical resources and fundamental instincts to survive both the treacherous river and unexpected human threats, three of the four succeed, returning home not only chastened but changed. Thematically and structurally, Deliverance recalls Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1884) and Joseph Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness” (1902). In Alnilam, a blind father goes to an air base when his son is killed in a training accident, learns that the boy’s body is missing, and embarks on a search for it, discovering surprising truths about a son he never had seen. The forebears of Alnilam are the ancient Greek Odysseus and Oedipus myths, which Dickey has effectively inverted for his narrative purposes.
To the White Sea follows in the thematic and structural continuum of the earlier books and echoes much of Dickey’s poetry of the 1960’s, but similarities notwithstanding, the novel is compellingly original and by no means a mere reworking of its predecessors. The action occurs shortly before the end of World War II, and its spare plot revolves around a single character, Sergeant Muldrow, who is the narrator. A B-29 tail gunner, he is on an American sortie over Tokyo on March 8, 1945, the night before the massive fire-bomb raid that wrought havoc on the city. Born in Barrow, Alaska, he was reared “on the north face of the Brooks Range… away from everything,” and remains a loner, having neither buddies in the military nor friends or relatives “in the States or the territories.” Military service seems to be a mere extension of his spartan upbringing, for he started hunting even before he could hold a gun (“my father would prop the rifle up on a stump, and I’d get down behind it and cut loose.”).
In the opening pages of the novel prior to the raid, there is the first of only two occasions when Muldrow converses with others. (The novel, remarkably, is almost totally devoid of dialogue.) During this barracks episode, Dickey focuses on the tailgunner’s physical strength, devotion to preparedness, sense of personal discipline, and animal-like instinct for survival. Talking to a new member of the flight crew, Muldrow says: “Remember this: if you go down, it ain’t going to be your GI emergency kit that’ll save you.” Touching his head, he concludes: “Whatever you can come up with that’s already in there.” When their plane is hit, Muldrow parachutes into the midst of Japan’s capital, and the rest of the novel chronicles his determined journey toward the desolate northern island of Holikaido. In his youth his father labeled him half snow goose and half wolverine, and now he is seeking a sanctuary in the frozen north.
His first refuge is a large sewer main, and he confesses to himself that he now knows how hunted animals feel. Though everybody he sees in the crowded city is his enemy, this is not a new condition for him; back on the Brooks Range, he recalls, “I had got where I was scared of the human voice. The next day, the Americans’ three-hundred-plane incendiary bomb raid provides him with a needed cover of smoke and fire. He places soot on his face, masks his mouth and nose against the fumes, and imitates the natives’ shuffle-stumble, thus easily blending into the panic-stricken throng. Calling upon his hunting knowledge, he kills three people: two men for clothing and a woman who recognizes him as an alien. Ironically, this inveterate loner relies on others-at this early stage, their panic and possessions-for his survival, a pattern that continues throughout the novel. At the same time, he rejects all social and moral constraints, musing, “I didn’t feel like I had any limits on me when the right situation came up…. There were not any rules, except the ones I made.” Surviving is what matters to him, so like the wild creatures he emulates (snowshoe hare, marmot, wolverine), he values patience and calls himself a stalker rather than a hunter. With a military issue compass, a silk map of Japan, and the North Star as helpmates, he looks ahead to the severe weather of the Arctic by killing swans for feathers to insulate his clothing.
When he happens upon a northbound freight train, he jumps atop a car filled with logs. During the journey he dreams about being a large white bird soaring across the northern sky, a prescient image of unfettered freedom that foreshadows the end of the novel. Disembarking from the train, he finds a human pelvis and plans to splinter it to make needles to sew winter clothes, but he realizes that he needs long bones from legs or arms for this purpose: “They would carry the needles.” Surprising an elderly couple in their house, he kills the pair (using techniques from hunting books he read when a child) and takes bone splinters from the old man’s arm. While waiting for them to dry, Muldrow matter-of-factly eats some of the couple’s leftover food and takes a nap. After making his clothes, he thinks: “[I] might even have laughed a little at the idea that I would be… the only American gunner in Japan who was sighting on Polaris and carrying...
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