Richard McKenna died in October 1964 at the age of 51. His first published work of fiction, the short story "Casey Agonistes," had appeared in a science fiction magazine only six years earlier; his enormously successful first novel, "The Sand Pebbles," was published in 1962. McKenna did not have much chance to enjoy his success. Only the day before his death he began revising the completed portion -- roughly a third -- of his second novel, excerpts from which, together with other shorter works, were published in 1967 under the title intended for the novel, "The Sons of Martha."
Now the Naval Institute Press has republished that book, changing its title, omitting two slight pieces of nonfiction, and adding 80 pages of new material: a story, a college term paper and the texts of two speeches, plus a further seven-page excerpt from his novel. Readers of "The Sons of Martha" will undoubtedly be disappointed to find so little new material, but those who know McKenna only through "The Sand Pebbles" will be grateful to renew his acquaintance by whatever means.
McKenna is one of that select company of ancient mariners (Melville, Dana, Conrad) who have had the daring and tenacity to undergo the grueling and often demeaning demands of life at sea -- service that in McKenna's case went on from his enlistment in the Navy in 1931 until his release in 1953. In that time he rose to the rank of machinist's mate chief, and so his fiction, unlike other notable modern novels of the Pacific Navy (e.g., Goodrich's "Delilah," Wouk's "The Caine Mutiny") offers an account of naval life from a seaman's, not an officer's, viewpoint.
What more vividly distinguishes McKenna's stories and novel from other fiction about the sea is his passionate regard for ships' machinery. The most unforgettable passages of "The Sand Pebbles" concern the initiation of a Chinese coolie by an American machinist into the Tao of a ship's engine, a sustained paean to the rationality, power and beauty of machinery that can be compared only to Robert Pirsig's "Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance." Of the two McKenna must be judged not only more knowledgeable as a mechanic but the better writer as well.
It is hard to tell from these excerpts of "The Sons of Martha" whether McKenna's second novel would have been, like his first, a classic. Surely the opening sequence, here titled "Cleaning Fireside," is as good as anything he ever wrote. It describes the conversion (in nearly a religious sense) of a former hospital corpsman, Reed Kinburn, into a soot-baptized mechanic as he performs the ritual Herculean labor of cleaning an eight-foot-long furnace.
The most valuable addition that "The Left-Handed Monkey Wrench" makes to Kinburn's oeuvre is a term paper he wrote for an anthropology class he took when, after his 22 years of service, he went to the University of North Carolina on the GI Bill. The paper not only describes lucidly the milieu of the USS Gold Star, on which he had served, but it illuminates the objectivity that allowed McKenna to approach his naval experiences without the obsessive interest in pecking orders and the rituals of submission and dominance that are so characteristic of novels about military life.
McKenna is not blind to the "Billy Budd" side of naval maneuvers, but his interest in shipboard society, like his interest in ship's engines, is concentrated on what makes it tick. In effect, he thought like an officer, and no doubt that accounts for his being republished by the Naval Institute Press (which has also reprinted "The Sand Pebbles").
It is regrettable that the editor of this volume did not include a sampling of McKenna's work as a writer of science fiction and fantasy. His genre fiction is generally superior to his "realistic" short stories of Navy life. McKenna did not renounce the field in which he served his literary apprenticeship after the success of "The Sand Pebbles," but continued to attend the week-long Milford (Pa.) Science Fiction Writers Conferences organized by Damon Knight and Kate Wilhelm, where in 1964 I had the opportunity to meet him. In my own imagination I adopted McKenna as my writerly stepfather, and I felt his death a few months later to a degree disproportionate to the time I'd known him. He was a man of remarkable magnanimity, an idealist without enthusiasms, a visionary without guff. He shouldn't have died so young.
The reviewer's latest work of fiction is the novel "Amnesia."