From our July 1984 issue, a review of James Webb’s third novel, A Country Such As This (Doubleday). Yesterday Webb announced he’s running for president, the fifth Democrat to declare, and certainly the most distinguished literary talent in the race for either party. Which can’t be good news for Hillary Clinton. Webb of course writes his own books. Clinton’s latest is egregiously plagiarized. (See this Washington Free Beacon report, which has yet to receive the attention it so richly deserves.) Maybe when they debate, Webb and Clinton could be asked about their different approaches to the art of writing and what it is they stand for as authors. — Ed.
“Why is everyone lying around like cowed puppies, peeing on their own tummies?” —Big Red Lesczynski
In modern fiction, popular acclaim and critical acclaim jibe infrequently, so it’s exciting when a new author comes along who attracts both. James Webb is such an author—a popular novelist whom critics can’t ignore, despite his penchant for coherent plots, genuine heroes, and the celebration of virtues which, in the root sense of the word virtue, are manly as well as admirable. His first novel, Fields of Fire (1978), tells it as it was in Vietnam, seen through “minds unfogged by academic posturings”: i.e., Marine Corps grunts, most of whom learn to be dependable even as they prefer to be anywhere else. His second novel, A Sense of Honor (1981), chronicles six hectic days in the lives of Annapolis midshipmen and junior officers, during which a wavering plebe must work out an answer to a blunt question proffered by an energetic first classman: “Are you bigger than your goddamn self?” Ignoring a modern preference for literary sludge, both novels nonetheless drew kudos from critics. Webb is popular, all right—but how could the critics fault his shrewd perception and his near flawless craftsmanship?
One might cavil at portions of Webb’s third novel, A Country Such As This. The cultural detail, though lush and resonant, clunks now and then with some off-key dialogue: e.g., the accent of a Japanese whose English is inconsistently broken (advancing within six pages from the preposterous “You are surprise I speak your ranguage” to the perfect “General MacArthur came to Yokohama after he landed at Atsugi” back to the labored “You go Korea soon?”), or the anachronism that butts into the raw diction of a Korean War serviceman (in the early 1950s, American males didn’t yet speak with ironic passivity of “getting laid”). But the few linguistic blemishes quickly fade amid the exuberance of Webb’s narrative and the ambitious sweep of his plot.
A Country Such As This tells of one generation in the life of a country James Webb loves; a story of America’s great leap, well, sideways: from reluctant world power assuming terrible responsibilities in 1951 to world-weary democracy about to articulate its Weltschmerz with the election of Jimmy Carter in 1976; a sprawling, boisterous, tender, violent, sad, funny, agonizing tale of the good and the bad, the lovely and the ugly, the great and the small in a nation of grand ideals and grandiose uncertainties. That’s quite a haul, even for 534 pages, and even for James Webb, who—true to form after Fields of Fire and A Sense of Honor—misses little detail yet wastes few words.
Webb secures a tight pace by channeling the sprawl of his narrative through the tributaries of three principal characters, classmates at the Naval Academy. On Graduation Day in 1951, Judd Smith, Red Lesczynski, and Joe Dingenfelder—inseparable as midshipmen—look forward now to separate choices of assignment. Juddsonia Smith, a Virginia hillbilly of Celtic-Indian stock, is the wild one, eagerly anticipating his commission in the Marine Corps and a combat tour in Korea; Stanislaus (Red) Lesczynski, Polish-American and Catholic, is the proper one, due shortly to marry his Sophia before entering Naval flight school; and Joseph Dingenfelder, Jewish and vaguely intellectual, is the sensitive one, ready for a Navy-sponsored stint at MIT. At their last meeting at Mario’s Bar in downtown Annapolis, the three become, literally, “blood brothers.” With the help of a steak knife and Judd’s Indian bravado, a promise is sealed. They will meet again, in exactly 25 years, right here in Mario’s. “We’ll drink the Scotch and count each other’s wrinkles and tell lies. Just the three of us. No excuses, unless you’re dead.”
But we already know from the short prologue, set in 1976, that only one of them will be at the Old Town Tavern (formerly Mario’s Bar) 25 years after the promise, sipping the Scotch alone, scarred by those 25 years, and quietly missing his two friends. We don’t yet know who returns—Webb drops enough hints in the prologue to suggest, in retrospect, any one of the three—but we aren’t too far into the rest of the novel before Webb makes it matter, deeply, that not all these three young men are going to reach age 47.
In Country, Webb repeats the technical formula of his two previous novels: a prologue neatly anticipating the novel’s mood, mise en scène, and consequent action; a studied omniscient viewpoint allowing him to set the private doubts of his characters in supple counterpoint to their actions; a military backdrop affording his brushstrokes a canvas whose texture he knows intimately. Working within that formula is Webb’s agile prose, alternately laconic and expansive, matching dry comment to lucid image. For a sample, try this description of a minor character in Country:
He was not a big man but he had a sort of power in him; not the affirmative directness of the achiever who must win, but the simple tenacity of a man who has never won and thus does not really even think about winning, but rather sees life as a daily refusal to be beaten. His body carried the stringy, acquiescent toughness of the mountains. With his gnarled look and his mousy, gray-tinged hair, he could have been anywhere from thirty to sixty years old. He had clear blue eyes and a certain set in his square, creased face, a posture to it, the thin mouth wide and firm, unyielding, the hollows of his cheeks and the slight tilt of his head a promise that he meant exactly what he said, and the world be damned all to hell.
That’s the Webb touch, whether he’s nailing your attention to a combat scene, or just evoking your wonder at the quiet heroism of normal human endurance.
Webb himself is a certified American hero, graduate of Annapolis (class of 1968, a year which he says in Country “went through America like a chainsaw out of control”), Marine Corps company commander in Vietnam, twice wounded: Navy Cross, Silver Star Medal, two Bronze Stars, two Purple Hearts, National Achievement Medal—the works. He is also a writer disinclined to parade his own valor up and down the main street of his readers’ imaginations, a man taken up with the lives of others—of the young troops he led in Vietnam, of the veterans he has championed as a lawyer and congressional aide, of his family and friends, and of the characters in his novels.
A man of great ingenuity as well as a splendid character, Webb displays in his fiction a keen sense of human motivation. He is almost ruthless in his depiction of human foibles, yet never gives in to an easy cynicism, for he knows what humans are made of. A true artist, Webb “lets go” his characters, content to watch in fascination as they work out their destinies under the burden of their weaknesses and the fickleness of events.
Thus, in Country, Judd Smith stumbles from Marine Corps hero to FBI agent to podunk preacher, wounded more by a troubled marriage than by Chinese bullets in Korea or by a gun blast from a fugitive criminal; Joe Dingenfelder gives up his own happiness in a hopeless attempt to bring happiness to his wife Dorothy, herself caught up in the shrill demands of her temperament and flaky insistence of her New Age politics; Red and Sophia Lesczynski both have, above all, each other, their children, and a close-knit Polish-American community in Pennsylvania, a place to come to amid the frequent displacements of Red’s military career, but a hometown threatened by labor troubles and bewildering social change. From his depiction of authentic characters buffeted by real events, Webb achieves a moving commentary on the character of a whole nation.
We are left to suppose that Americans make up a nation worthy of love, intense loyalty, and genuine pride—in a word, patriotism—yet a nation in whose character quite a bit has gone awry. And this has been Webb’s consistent theme. In A Sense of Honor, for example, a midshipman AWOL for a compelling personal reason is involved in a fender-bender in Washington, D.C. while racing back to Annapolis during the wee hours of the morning to beat reveille. A lone sentence dropped in Webb’s offhand description of that minor incident sums up what James Webb stands against and what his novelist’s eye can see that too much of America, a country such as this, has let itself become: “The driver of the other car was walking around holding his neck, feigning whiplash.”