The Drifters by James A. Michener

The Drifters


James A.  Michener




The best way to change society is to replace it one man at a time.


When I came across a copy of James Michener’s 1971 outing The Drifters in a second-hand bookshop recently, I must have picked it up and put it down half-a-dozen times before buying it.  With most loved books, it’s OK to go back.  The very worst that can happen is that it won’t be quite as good as you remember.

The Drifters, though, is so of its time and was so important to me as a teenager (see ‘About’ section!) that I just wasn’t sure how it would feel to be re- reading it forty years on.

Well, what a surprise:  not only are there far fewer ‘groovy’s’ and ‘far out, man’s’ than I had anticipated, but despite the shadow of the Vietnam war hanging over it—or because of that?—this terrific novel remains astonishingly topical.

It takes place in 1969, as the decade that culminated in the so-called Summer of Love was coming to its violent conclusion courtesy of Charles Manson and others.

It follows the adventures of six young people from various parts of the world as they drift through Europe and parts of Africa, avoiding variously the draft and Life in general, depending on how old you are or how you want to look at it.

Joe, the draft dodger from California remains my favourite, just as he was back in the day.  For a start, in legging it to avoid being killed for a really stupid reason (nothing), he is doing exactly what I would have done.  Also, he was as confused about things as I was then; and still am, come to think of it.  Ending up in southern Spain’s Torremolinos he manages a bar called the Alamo.  As the town was at that time a magnet for counter-culture drifters, this is a plot device for bringing them all together.

Britta is a beautiful and sweet-natured girl who is fleeing from the endless nights of her native Tromsø, in Norway; she takes up with Joe and also begins work at the Alamo, where she becomes something of a heartbreaker.

Monica remains a character that I loathe.  Born with a silver spoon up her pampered ass, she fancies herself as some sort of rebellious anti-establishment legend; in fact she is simply a spoiled, detestable little cow who only has the wherewithal to be so obnoxious because she has been born into wealth and privilege.

She soon gets her claws into Cato, the son of a minister, who has fled to Spain after falling foul of the law in Pennsylvania.  Cato is a likeable enough character in the beginning, but as the chip on his shoulder gets bigger and his resentment towards all white men grows (as does his involvement with militant Islam) I began to consider himself and Monica well met.

Yigal is an extremely interesting character, mainly because he is Jewish and has just fought in the Six Day War (where he emerges extraordinarily tolerant of his Arab enemies, in stark contrast to Cato’s growing racism.)  The sections concerning Yigal are fascinating when read in light of what was recently taking place in the Middle East (the latest events, at least).  In fact, it wouldn’t do any harm if some of the bigots who were screaming for the Israeli ambassador to be kicked out of Ireland would go back and get a grip on some historical context. [See the Rogue States article in the sister blog.]

Finally, there is the hugely appealing Gretchen, a very intelligent and politically motivated young Bostonian who finds herself in voluntary exile when she feels that her family let her down over a dreadful incident in which she had become blamelessly involved.

Living the Hippy Dream…

Whilst the idea of them all coming together at the Alamo somehow works, it strains credulity slightly that the narrator, Fairbanks should have known three of them prior to this.  He is a 61-year old employee of World Mutual, who appears to have a dream job that lets him fly around the world, popping up wherever the six travelers are.  Still, apart from the element of coincidence it works well enough and gives us a chance to view these characters from his point of view as well as making up our own minds.

Having brought them together Michener then takes his characters drifting through Pamplona during the San Fermin Festival and the famous Running of the Bulls;  an Algarve that was still relatively undiscovered by tourists; Moςambique and a fabulous visit to a massive game reserve; and finally to the drug-addled nightmare-vision of Marrakech.

The writer brings each place vividly to life whilst lacing the events with conversations that not only set the characters firmly in their time but –and this is astonishing—also illuminates certain events in our own modern world.

I had expected to re-read The Drifters as a period piece; what a surprise to find that it seems as fresh and enjoyable as I remembered it from four decades ago.

Author: Charley Brady

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  1. I absolutely adore this book. It is amazing to think that the book was written both at the end of the 60s and about the end of the 60s. Michener had a very good grasp on the feel of that time. The book conveys a very intense grasp of the present moment. Michener knows exactly how to bring a setting to life.

    I have read this book a couple times now and although the ending is satisfactory, it always leaves me wanting more. Do you have any recommendations of other great novels built around travel and that yearning to understand a specific moment in time?

  2. Well, this is embarrassing, to put it mildly. Stuart, if you should see this then I can only extend my sincerest apologies and say that for a while I had things going on that took me well away from this blog – and everything else.

    However, thank you – horrendously late in the day as it is! — for your comments and I’m glad that you enjoy ‘The Drifters’ as much as I do. As I’ve written elsewhere, the book had an enormous impact on me back in the seventies, to the extent that when I did my ‘A’Levels around 1977 I took off to see if I could manage to get to the all of the places mentioned in the book – which I did to a large extent, travelling by thumb and a huge amount of luck in those pre-mobile phone, pre-internet days.

    In fact it gave me what turned out to be a life-long enjoyment of travel, something I’ve been extraordinarily lucky in.

    I’m not really sure what else I can recommend. I assume that you’ve gone through Michener’s back catalogue? It includes ‘Hawaii’, ‘Chesapeake’, ‘Caribbean’, ‘Alaska’, and ‘Mexico’ (the last of which remains the country that I’ve enjoyed visiting best). Oddly, I’ve just finished rereading his ‘Tales of the south Pacific’ and although it now seems as distant on the ear as he predicted it one day would, being set during WW2, it is still a good read.

    I also revisited recently the first hardcover I ever bought, at about the age of 14 – ‘Fatu-Hiva: Back to Nature’ by Thor Heyerdahl. This one is for everyone who ever dreamed of just throwing everything up in order to go and live on a desert island; and going through my late dad’s books I came across another old favourite, ‘Children of Cape Horn’ by the truly remarkable Rosie Swale.

    Stuart, I hope that this finds you well – and once again, my apologies!

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