Picks and Pans Review: To the White Sea

updated 10/11/1993 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 10/11/1993 AT 01:00 AM EDT

by James Dickey

James Dickey loves to upset literary apple carts, and very skilled at the task he is. His collection Buck-dancer's Choice won the 1966 National Book Award for Poetry with anti-pastoral verses about mental patients, truck drivers and slave owners. In 1970 he wrote Deliverance, a riveting best-seller (and 1972 film) that stridently tweaked liberal sensibilities during the peace-and-love revolution. To the White Sea—a meditation on snow, murder, madness and war—is his most provocative work yet.

In the waning days of World War II, a bantamweight B-29 tail gunner named Muldrow parachutes from his destroyed bomber into the conflagration that is Tokyo. White Sea is a disturbing record of survival: Muldrow narrates his 560-mile trek north from the capital to the snowbound and desolate island of Hokkaido. Raised in the icy emptiness of Alaska's Brooks Range, he uses his childhood skills of stealth, his intimate knowledge of hunting and a carefully honed bread knife to complete his journey.

Along the way, Muldrow lives on dry rice and raw swan meat. He kills men and women as he does animals: with sociopathic curiosity and a sense of necessity rather than sorrow. But the enemy is not so much the Japanese as it is civilization. The deeper he treks into the while-out world, the more he becomes an animal among animals, a kind of killer shaman caught on the cusp between magic and hallucination. "I was moving with plenty of new power," Muldrow thinks as he plows up a mountainside, "as though I had eaten something magical, or swum in water that had radium in it, or had a transfusion of something better than blood. No blade could penetrate me. A bullet fired right at me would have curved and gone around." As one might expect, Dickey is as cunning and impenetrable as his protagonist: The denouement decides little; questions about society, survival and the nature of humanity crackle across the ice floes. This is Dickey's Red Badge of Courage, but it remains an enigmatic crimson stain on the snow. (Houghton Mifflin, $22.95)

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