Historians mark Aug. 15, 1945, as V-J Day, the end of hostilities with Japan, but in literary annals it has another meaning: the moment when approximately half of the 16 million young Americans in uniform cast aside their rifles, bombsights, bedpans, bulldozers and mops, and set themselves the task of writing the Big One -- the definitive novel of World War II.
Sloan Wilson and I were among them and our goal, naive as it now seems, was understandable. The generation before us, the generation that had come of age under the guns of August 1914, had only a few years earlier produced a legendary literature based on its experience of World War I. Not only Dos Passos, Cummings and Hemingway had given us searing portrayals out of America itself, but Remarque, Romains, Frederic Manning and T.E. Lawrence gave them from abroad; and in the process they'd created not only the novel of civilians lost in the morass of modern war but finished the task begun by Stephen Crane: They'd created the War Novel.
My generation of soldiers and sailors and airmen and marines was haunted by the War Novel, which we read endlessly in the pocket-sized paperbacks called Armed Forces Editions, and it is not surprising that we vowed then and there, in the dripping forests of the Pacific and Asia, in the brutal cold of France and Belgium, on the lonely fantails of the great warships or in the rec rooms of remote airbases, to duplicate the feat. We ourselves had a major tale to tell, and our literary forebears had shown us how.
It didn't altogether work out that way, of course. Apart from the fact that one generation never duplicates what its predecessors have done, our war was different from theirs: much broader geographically, far more complex technologically and, above all, more certain of its aims and moral fundament. We were less innocent, hence had fewer illusions to lose, and besides that, few of us seriously doubted World War II's necessity. Norman Mailer, Irwin Shaw, James Jones, Herman Wouk and Harry Brown did well by our experience, to be sure, as did hundreds of others, and their accounts were especially rich in information about how the war was waged in all its various locales and dimensions. But Hemingway, Dos Passos, Cummings and Remarque? Alas, no.
Sloan Wilson made his reputation as a popular novelist depicting the social fabric of post-World War II America, especially the numbing effects of the new suburban life and affluence that emerged in the 1950s. "The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit" may seem dated now, but it caught exactly the bewildered way in which so many veterans wound their paths through the executive suites of those years, and thus remains a permanent document in our social history.
In recent years Wilson, during World War II the youthful commander of a series of ships in the Aleutians and the Pacific, has turned to memories of those times. "Pacific Interlude," which he forthrightly states is "fiction based on fact," tells such a tale. It is the story of a 24-year-old junior naval officer who commands a battered, barely floatable tankship used to ferry relatively small volumes of gasoline during the closing days of the Pacific war.
It's a dangerous assignment but a dull one, and Wilson portrays it by means now familiar to readers of World War II fiction: the cross-section of America that makes up the crew; the martinet, over-age executive officer whose rigidity threatens everyone; the constant sense of disaster ahead; the lyrical interludes ashore among the women of Australia and the Philippines; above all the delicate role of the captain himself, who walks a ceaseless tightrope to keep his restless command alive.
To say that Wilson does it in a familiar way is not to demean his accomplishment, however. For if his novel too often reminds one of dozens of others -- "Mister Roberts" and "The Caine Mutiny" among them -- and if the writing too often seems perfunctory or even careless, it must also be said that "Pacific Interlude" never lags, and that over and above its obvious shortcomings it boasts one major virtue: It reeks authenticity. In this day when "meta-fiction" dominates our literature, it is reassuring to read a novel solidly grounded in concrete reality: every detail of Sloan Wilson's memory is clear, and he brings it to focus in portraying life aboard the tanker Y-18.
That is not all that fiction does, to be sure, let alone its most important task, but Wilson's modest recollection accomplishes it. Meanwhile neither he nor I -- nor, for that matter, most of the 8 or 9 million of us who came out of V-J Day determined to do it -- has brought off the job. The Big One remains to be written.