Dickey delivers a killer from wartime enemies and takes him to apocalypse

THE BALTIMORE SUN

This new novel by poet, fiction writer and critic James Dickey pits one man's struggle for survival against his wish for death and spiritual rebirth in nature. The time is May 1945, the place the Pacific Theater of World War II. Early on, the narrator Muldrow, a gunner in the U.S. Air Force, is shot down on a bombing mission over Tokyo. The description of the plane being hit is reminiscent of Ernest Hemingway's prose style:

"The next thing was not fire, though later I realized that it had to do with fire, had fire in it, but it did not seem like fire that was separate from us, or that could have been to one side of us, or above or below us. No, it was like the inside of the plane had exploded and we, each one of us, had exploded. It was like we were inside an explosion, or maybe we had exploded from inside ourselves."

It's every man for himself. Muldrow, the only survivor, parachutes to safety in the Tokyo harbor under the cover of night. He escapes from the city amid the general chaos of the great firebombing raid that occurs the next day, In the melee, he kills a man, shooting him in order to steal his clothes. This is the first of many murders Muldrow commits during the course of his flight.

The narrative, which follows Muldrow's stream of consciousness, closely focuses on his strategies to survive. These are juxtaposed with recollections of his upbringing in the slopes of Alaska's Brooks Range, located above the Arctic Circle. Drawing on his frontier expertise, Muldrow sets out for the northern Japanese island of Hokkaido: "where there would be the kind of animals and birds I grew up with, the kind of cold that cleans out your insides like fire . . . and I could live like I was used to living."

The contempt in which Muldrow holds the Japanese is not only the typical hatred which a soldier is expected to feel for the enemy. Muldrow is depicted as a product of the wild North who detests civilization, and the pitiful unraveling of Japanese society toward the end of the war that he confronts is a source of constant derision to him. The murders he commits so easily bolster a conviction of his own superiority. Only to an aged samurai who almost proves his match does Muldrow accord grudging respect.

The people he feels closest to are the Eskimos, among whom he spent his youth and whose self-sufficiency he admires. He prefers tribal weapons -- knives and spears -- to civilized man's guns. It is to wild animals, however, that he feels most profoundly connected. Not only does he plan his escape strategy by mimicking animal behavior -- camouflage, stillness, night travel -- but he also dreams and fantasizes that he has actually become an animal.

His mystical identifications are rendered in detail, with depictions of the specific animals whose characteristics he claims to possess -- the wolverine, fisher marten, lynx and snow hare, to name a few. He shares the primitive belief that by eating a creature's flesh, one assumes its qualities, and there are descriptions of his killing wild goats and swans and devouring their raw meat.

Readers of Mr. Dickey's poetry and his 1970 novel "Deliverance" will recognize his romantic vision of the natural world as instinctive and complete, his glorification of combat and physical exhilaration, and his apocalyptic ideal of man's death, rebirth and spiritual renewal in nature. Yet in poems such as "The Firebombing," which also describes a World War II bombing raid over Japan, the speaker, looking back, confesses to a moral revulsion at his military self.

It is possible to sympathize with the four Atlanta businessmen in "Deliverance" who confront the thrills and terrors of the rural Georgia river and the hostility of the local inhabitants. But Muldrow is so lacking in human feeling and values that he seems completely alien.

The emotionally neutral tone that Mr. Dickey adopts in describing Muldrow's murders and the novel's narrow focus on the narrative of survival make it difficult to judge the author's attitude toward his protagonist. One has the sense at first that, however coldbloodedly Muldrow dispatches his victims, these are wartime killings and hence excusable. Yet as the novel progresses, Muldrow offhandedly discloses that before he entered the Air Force, he killed his girlfriend, whom he dismissively refers to as "the college girl from Kansas." Muldrow's motivation for this murder is never disclosed, but the knowledge of it affects our attitude toward the other murders he commits in the course of his flight among the Japanese.

At last, against great odds, he reaches his destination, Hokkaido, and is taken in by a tribal village, where he finds "such friendly people [that] even Eskimos couldn't compare with them." It seems that he has it made. When he observes the village's ritual killing of a bear cub, however, he goes berserk: "I have seen bad things happen in my life, but never anything that made me as sick or as mean as that. I didn't care what I did to any of them."

This assertion, following his accounts of over a half-dozen murders, including one instance in which he ritually decapitated an old woman, leads us to believe that we are dealing with a psychopath who has abdicated his sense of judgment. At this point Muldrow's fate is sealed; the atmosphere of impending doom with which Mr. Dickey has suffused the story from the beginning is now given form and flesh in the scene of Muldrow's martyrdom.

Muldrow's symbolic transformation from man to beast is complete; he no longer identifies with the tribal village, as he would have in the past, but with their animal victim. The novel's ending obeys Mr. Dickey's poetic necessity, an apocalypse in which fire and ice merge in a final image of destruction. Why Mr. Dickey chose to make a psychopathic murderer the representative of his romantic philosophy is the most perplexing question raised by this strange and repellent novel.

Ms. Whitehouse is a writer who lives in New York.

TO THE WHITE SEA

James Dickey

Houghton Mifflin

272 pages. $22.95

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