I’ve read a lot of books by James A. Michener, who became famous in the 1940s with the popular success of his book South Pacific, which was turned into a Broadway musical. He went on to write at least forty more novels, and I’m sure I’ve read at least half of them.
I thought I was done reading Michener because even though I enjoy historical fiction a lot, he has some weaknesses. For example, he’s not likely to kill off a character, when perhaps he ought to. Twice in this book, I thought the narrative would be stronger if he allowed one of his main characters to die. He works with strong archetypes, and he seems to think that he needs those archetypes to explore all the topics and themes from cover to cover. Perhaps he’s not wrong about that, but since the characters are archetypes, they are easily replaceable, as Michener has shown he can do when he writes a saga that spans millennia rather than a couple of years.
A few months back I was in my local bookshop and I purchased two books about the hippie era from 1958 to 69 or so. One was by Jack Kerouac, which I reviewed two months ago.
What I appreciated about Michener’s take has to do with his generational perspective: he was 60 years old in 1967, and he was trying to understand the new generation. He wrote the Drifters as the late 60s was happening. He was a journalistic novelist trying to figure out what made these kids tick. What did they like about their music? Why were they dodging the draft? Something his generation couldn’t comprehend. It’s one thing to examine the Boomer generation from the perspective of Gen X, or for Millenials to try to understand their Gen X grandparents, but it’s very interesting to get a take on that era from someone who came from the G.I. generation.
Although Michener was only born 8 years after Hemingway, it would be a mistake to think that Michener was of the same generation as Hemingway; Hemingway was part of the Lost generation. To give some context, the Lost generation had similar generational values to the Gen X generation. Michener was born only 8 years after Hemingway but outlived him by 36 years. What would Hemingway, who died in 1961, have thought about the late 1960s? What would he have written? Would he have understood the kids better from a visceral place, where Michener was only able to put it together intellectually, by listening closely to his subjects?
Why the comparison between Hemingway and Michener? Both writers GEEKED OUT about Pamplona. A central theme in The Drifters is courage. The draft dodgers weren’t evading Vietnam for lack of courage, and Michener illustrates this candidly in his take on the running of the bulls.
What about a comparison between Kerouac (1922-1969) and Michener? Both born technically in the G.I. generation, Kerouac was very much a tail-ender, and like someone born in 1979, who has elements of Gen X and Millenial in their makeup, Kerouac seems to relate better to a later generation… or, like someone born an entire generation too early, was out of place in his generation and related much better to the Boomers.
The Drifters is one of Michener’s best novels. He worked hard to understand the Baby Boomers’ generational values, and articulates them well through the voices of his archetypes, even as he marvels at how different they are from previous generations. As a storyteller, Michener sometimes fell into the trap of the rabbit trail and the geek-out, and I’d say this is a spoiler but I still have 80 pages to go and Michener could still surprise me at the end, but when the opportunity to kill off a character presents itself, he gets T-Rex arms and backs off with the hatchet.
If you want to understand the Boomer generation from the perspective of someone who came before them, this novel is an excellent 800-page adventure that, after setting the stage in the United States, drifts from Torremolinos, Spain, to the Algarve region of southern Portugal, north to Pamplona, and on to Africa, touching on the current vibes in Mozambique and Morrocco. For lovers of history and geography and intergenerational understanding, it is A+. A fast-paced plot with twists and surprises, it is not.