BOOK REVIEW / Nasty, brutish and rather long: 'To the White Sea' - James Dickey: Simon & Schuster, 14.99 pounds

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The Independent Culture
IF YOU were wondering whatever became of that mythical figure The Great White Hunter, rest assured: he is alive and killing in James Dickey's new novel. Back in 1970, Dickey wrote Deliverance, a fable about confronting - and surviving - the primal savagery of humankind (it was turned into an acclaimed film starring Burt Reynolds, which tells you just how primal it got), so the author's track record on all things nasty, brutish and short is irreproachable. Can he repeat that success here?

To The White Sea is, if anything, even more violent in its setting and action, demanding of its hero extremes of ruthlessness and cunning the likes of which would make even Bruce Willis blanch. Set in the last months of the Second World War, the story concerns an American tailgunner named Muldrow who has been flying missions over a beleaguered Japan: if things had turned out differently they could have called the movie Sky Hard. Unfortunately, in Muldrow's final sortie before the napalm bombing of Tokyo, his plane is shot down in flames, and he parachutes from the doomed craft into the city. Shielded at first by the burning chaos on the ground, Muldrow sets about making himself inconspicuous and heading north towards safety, armed with little more than a kitchen knife and a compass. Make no mistake - this man is of a hardy breed.

Plunged deep into enemy territory, the novel becomes a kind of survival guide - to borrow Woody Allen's quip, it could be entitled 'The Best Places To Eat While in Hiding'. We learn, among other things, how to create a camouflage, how to start a fire with flints, how to sharpen a knife, how to skin a rabbit, how to sneak up on an unsuspecting 'Nip' (the language is defiantly non-PC) and run a blade through his (or her) guts. 'If you want to kill something, have it coming toward you . . .' Thanks, I'll try to remember that. Yet for all the know-how on display, there's a shortfall in technique elsewhere - for instance, how to vary the pace, and how to deliver an interior monologue without sounding like a third-rate Hemingway copyist. One can accept Dickey's narrator-hero as the hard-bitten frontiersman type, the modern Odysseus whose native wit enables him to endure every sort of calamity; but there needs to be a little light with the shade, some wit to leaven the self-importance of being Ernest: 'All I heard was the air I was in, the wind holding me up in myself, over everything. Pure air: pure: pure. Pure riding . . . I was everywhere, wanting to fall on something and kill it, fall all the way down, maybe thousands of feet: fall but not yet, because I was riding. I was riding in snow and on snow, in the whiteness where whiteness counted for the most it could'. All clear?

There are pages of this force-of-nature stuff, making the book seem a good deal longer than it is. A long book, I'm afraid: long: long. After a while we come to expect just about every significant word in triplicate. As a device it goes from being portentous - 'I wanted that quick, that quickness. I wanted the quick whenever I could get it' - to faintly absurd - 'Could it be he was dead? He was dead. He was dead and he was mighty dead, and that was all.' So he was dead, then? As his cross-country flight continues, Muldrow reminisces about his boyhood in Alaska where his father raised and taught him. In this wintry climate he learnt all he needed to know about animal survival, and developed a predator's feeling of solidarity with the lynx, the hawk, the wolverine. This affinity becomes important towards the end of the book when, following a pep talk from a posse of Zen monks, he escapes from his Japanese captors (another episode of graphic brutality) and fetches up in a tribal village near the coast. Here the villagers make the mistake of entertaining their guest with a round of bear-baiting - they don't realise he's a militarised Dr Dolittle - so the animal's chief tormentor is dispatched with some quick knifework before Muldrow quits the place next day.

At the end of the story I was flummoxed - not for the first time - as to what actually befell the narrator. The blurb had promised 'a harrowing climax that is pure James Dickey in its fearsome conception', but I couldn't for the life of me work out what was going on: 'the cold and the snow came back. The wind mixed the flakes, and I knew I had it. I was in it, and part of it. I matched it all. And I will be everywhere in it from now on.' Baffling? Pretentious? I suppose we must leave it as 'pure James Dickey'. Whatever his tough-guy locations signify, it's high time somebody tested this man's word-processor for steroids.