A FEW DAYS AGO, The Last Convertible (Putnam) was published; it was born with a silver spoon in its mouth. Already, it's a full selection of the Literary Guild, has a 50,000 first printing and a $50,000 ad budget, and will be made into a Universal film. For starters. The romantic, nostalgic, bittersweet novel deals with a generation of young men and women - the men are in the class of 1944, Harvard - and with the changes worked on their lives by war and its aftermath. The metaphor for the romantic dream of perfection and happiness is the Empress, a green 1938 Packard Super Eight convertible, which passes down from hand to hand among the five young men in the book, a great old car that winds up rejected by the new generation, in the same way that the values of the older generation have been rejected.
I spoke with the author, Anton Myrer, in Putnam's offices recently. The author of six previous books, including the highly successful war novel,Once An Eagle (1968), is a handsome, trim, youthful man of 55, exactly the age of the men in his book. Here are some of Tony Myrer's thoughts about his generation, thoughts that infuse and informThe Last Convertible.
"1944 was my class at Harvard; I pretty well paralleled what these characters have done: I went into service, went into the war, came back, finished school, married unfortunately [Myrer is now remarried fortunately]. It was the pattern. The big difference with us was that we lost those years. And so, when we came home, we rushed into everything - raced into marriage, raced to get a diploma, raced into jobs, parenthood - to make up for lsot time. Which was absurd, because you never can. Most of our troubles, our unhappiness, our sins if you will, stemmed from this wild haste. The unfortunate thing about my generation and something I was trying to get into the book was that the Second World War taught us that the individual was not as important as the unit, so our allegiance was to the bigger element - the platoon, the division or the battalion. When we got home, we transferred this allegiance to the firm or the corporation. That was the biggest mistake we made.
"During the Vietnam conflict, the resentment of people of my age toward young people was enhanced, because we knew we'd made the mistake. You're always angrier when it's your fault. The reason I introduced Jack Kennedy into the book as a minor character was not simply because we identified so much with his experience - he stood for more than that. We'd been blamed for so much as a generation, but we never really held the power. There were just those thousand days of Camelot. Then he was killed and that was the end of it. And then the power reverted again to men whose attitudes had really been conditioned in the late 1920s and mid-1930s. That's another reason we're resentful. Our generation is constrained to believe that Jack would have done it differently. One of the characters in the book says, 'Our parents might have been the lost generation, but we're the ruptured one.' And that's how we really thought of ourselves - as truncated, chopped off, the broken life. In a way Kennedy stood for all that because his assassination was the most terrible truncation of all. We endowed Jack probably with more than he ever could have fulfilled, but we had no other choice. I see that now. We can say, look at all that he would have done had he lived, but what we are really saying is: look at all that we could have done if it hadn't been for World War II.
"We were a very mixed-up generation sexually. We were a mass of wild contradictions. As I look back on those years before the war, I'm sort of horrified at how innocent, romantic, absurd we were. Sex was a Holy Grail, it was an athletic contest, it was a trial by fire, all smashed into one. And everything we did was so absurd.We'd talk about 'going all the way,' and then we'd double-and triple-date. The thing that complicated it all, that sprang it free from its adolescent ritual, was the war. We'd all read our Remarque and we thought: it's going to be like World War I, and only one in 10 is coming home - I've got to live. As a consequence, you'd have sex with a girl, and that became an irrevocable commitment. 'Til death do us part.And it happened over and over agian; it became the deepest, most deadly ritual of them all. Our attitudes toward sex were so impossible that it was inevitable that most of our marriages would be disastrous and most of them were. And we compounded it. After marrying disastrously, we went on living with each other. I was married 22 years.
"The way we loved to drive! That's why I chose the convertible as the time link. We believed it was an open road, and to a certain extent it was. It wasn't until the 1960s that we turned around and saw it was just a big superhighway, and it wasn't leading anywhere at all. And yet, there was a kind of validity to what we felt about convertibles, and about romance, about music and dancing and going out.
"Our generation has taken quite a beating, really. We've been criticized very heavily; we're supposed to be the conformist, apatthetic, practical, pragmatic generation, but I don't think we really were. We were very romantic, very committed, fantastically innocent, unbelievably naive, very participatory. We were not a cool generation, we were a hot one. Even in our dancing, we sought contact. In balance, I don't think we come off too badly. We have been maligned; but we were an involved generation. The bad thing was that we were too acceptant. The war made us accept authority, and there is where we made out biggest mistake.
"To me the most terrible thing about war was that you were always forced to make these miserable, vicious choices, always a choice among evils. It always came down to this, and it was terrible, because not only do you suffer psychologically, but whatever choice you make is going to be bad. You subordinate your own needs and drives to circumstances. Circumstances become an institution. I don't think we had any choice, because we had to do what we did, but it made us less as men.
"We did the right thing for the wrong reason, the wrong thing for the right reason. We faced ourselves so badly, understood ourselves so badly. I wonder why."