The Drifters by James A. Michener
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.