Saturday, January 25, 2014

Pulitzer Project: Tales of the South Pacific

I seem to be on a roll with the Pulitzer winners. This was the second one in a row that was actually worth reading.

Tales of the South Pacific is one of the Pulitzer winners I could vaguely remember reading many years ago. I didn't really remember much about it, though, so decided to read it again. I'm glad I did. The book is interesting and well written. The book won in 1948 and was the first work of fiction to be honored in the new category of "Fiction" rather than as novel. In fact, I found myself wondering if Tales of the South Pacific was the reason the category's name changed. The book does have a general structure and is organized in a way that might qualify it as a novel, but overall feels a lot more like a short story collection based on a common theme.

Over the years, I've seen so many clips from the musical South Pacific that details of the book itself had faded in my memory. Years of hearing songs like "Some Enchanted Evening," "There's Nothing Like a Dame," and "Happy Talk" made it easy to forget that Michener's work is much more complicated than the stripped down story lines developed for the musical and the movie. In Tales of the South Pacific Michener describes in fairly graphic detail the reality of the war in the Pacific in the months following the battle of the Coral Sea. He also gets into a troublesome subject for the 1940s -- race relations -- and hints at some of the problems the military had with drunks and rapists during the war. It is a much more complex work than the movie would lead one to believe.

Although Tales of the South Pacific is usually described as a novel, it's more like a collection of stories tied together by a common omniscient narrator. The narrator is a Naval officer who gets assigned to essentially be an admiral's errand boy. He shuttles around the theater of operations, spending a few days or weeks in one location and then a few days or weeks in another, as he carries various messages and orders that can't be entrusted to the radio or regular mail. Some of the assignments he enjoys; others he endures. Along the way he meets various characters, both enlisted men and officers, and describes their lives, both good and bad. Some of the men are going quietly (or not so quietly) crazy from the combination of inaction -- waiting for orders to move on to another island -- and the hardships of living in the tropics. Malaria, mysterious rashes, fungus diseases, and killer boredom were not a good combination. Men end up in the brig or committing suicide, crimes are committed, rape or attempted rape of the Navy nurses is appallingly common.

The two characters Michener actually spends the most time with are two men Tony Fry and Bus Adams. Fry is a wheeler dealer noted for his ability to avoid work while at the same time managing to procure supplies for the officers' Wine Mess (which actually served no wine, just hard liquor and beer); Bus is famed for his ability to fly even the shakiest of aircraft into places no one else can go. The narrator's path crosses Tony and Bus's numerous times; sometimes their story line is relatively light-hearted, like when they island hop in search of whiskey for Christmas, at others it takes a more melancholy turn.

The movie focuses on two sets of star-crossed lovers; in the book the two couples -- Navy nurse Nellie Forbush and French plantation owner Emile de Becque and Marine lieutenant Joe Cable and a Tonkinese (ethnic Chinese) woman Liat -- are two small stories that Michener doesn't actually spend much page space on. He also doesn't invest their stories with as much drama as the scripts do. In both cases, the Americans become involved with someone that their long held prejudices tell them is unacceptable. Nellie discovers Emile has children who are half-Polynesian and she's initially appalled that a white man would have slept with a native woman; Joe begins a relationship with Liat that he knows has to end with him walking away.

Never having seen the movie, just various clips, I have no idea just how Joe's involvement with Liat begins in the film, but in the novel it's not particularly innocent. In the book, Liat's mother, Bloody Mary, basically pimps her out. She's operating a lucrative black market, Joe's been given the assignment of shutting her down, so what better way to co-opt him than by providing a beautiful distraction? Once he starts fraternizing with the locals, Joe's not going to be able to enforce the rules -- he can't risk having either his commanding officer or the enlisted men find out. Joe does become infatuated with Liat, but he's never going to marry her. He's pretty clearly in lust, not love. Besides, back in the 1940s, nice American boys did not marry girls they fucked the first time they saw them. His unit gets orders to move out, they're being shipped into actual combat, and that's that. Liat is gone from the book, and Joe isn't mentioned again until the final chapter.

Michener was well positioned to write this book. He was stationed in the Pacific and served as a naval historian. You can tell he really knew what he was writing about. He had seen it all up close, and although he fictionalized personalities, you can tell all the characters were inspired by real people. The one minor complaint I had about the book overall was in its ending. In the final chapter, the narrator is sitting in a cemetery on one of the islands talking with an enlisted man assigned to do cemetery maintenance. They're talking about people they knew in common, either personally or through reputation. That's when the author reveals that one of the characters most deserving of a hole in the ground had managed to slither his way back to the States before an especially bloody battle. It was pretty pre-ordained that most of the characters the reader comes to know and like are going to end up dead -- it was World War II, after all -- but it just seemed so unfair that one of the least likable survived.

So how would I rate this book? It's not the best of the Pulitzer winners I've read so far, but it's up towards the top of the list. On the usual 1 to 10 range, I'd give it an 8. The language felt a little dated in places, but overall it's worth reading.

Next up on the list? Guard of Honor by James Gould Cozzens.

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