As I mentioned in my opening post about Nevil Shute (see Mysterious Orientations, November 3, 2010), I was inexorably dragged to the author, perhaps not exactly kicking and screaming, but largely because I had read everything else in the house that promised to be even remotely interesting. I started my Shute-fest with the paperbacks, as those at least had a bit of plot summary on the back covers; the hardbacks had long since shed their dust jackets, and there was just no telling what sort of unendurable ennui might be hiding between the covers. My first choice was, coincidentally, the first choice of most other Shute readers, On the Beach.
Published in 1957, rather late in Shute’s literary career, the book was a bestseller right out of the gate. A scant two years later it was made into a film featuring Gregory Peck, Fred Astaire and Ava Gardner. The story was set in the near future, a post-apocalyptic tale of the aftermath of nuclear war in the northern hemisphere (naturally, this was a highly resonant topic in the late fifties, at the height of the Cold War era). The bombs, and the radiation that followed, took the lives of pretty much everyone above the equator; those south of the planet’s waistline were living on borrowed time, waiting for the prevailing winds to blow the radioactive fallout southward. In Australia, Dwight Towers, the captain of a US submarine based in the South Pacific, is apprised of some hopeful intelligence: it seems a static-laden and borderline-unintelligible Morse code signal is being received regularly from the United States, and Towers is enjoined by the Australian government to proceed northward to see who is doing the transmitting. It will not come to a good end, albeit in a much different way than the submarine crew could possibly have imagined.
By comparison to the denizens of modern-day novels, the characters seem remarkably un-self-indulgent, nice folks resigned to their fates with the stiff-upper-lip good cheer that characterized a wartime generation of Brits and British-influenced colonials. The Australian government has issued suicide kits, so that families can opt out of the debilitating radiation sickness to come. And for the most part, folks approach the end of their lives with equanimity, choosing to end their time in their own homes, in the company of close friends and family, rather than scrambling ever southward in hopes of gaining a few extra days.
As is often the case with popular novels, there is a love story winding its tendrils around the page edges; in fact, there are at least a couple of love stories to be found, each heartbreaking in its own way, and virtually guaranteed to elicit a tear or a catch in the throat as the reader susses out what is about to transpire.
Had I not started the book well into the evening, I would have read it in one sitting. As it was, I had to endure a day of school (no part of which was as compelling by half) before I could tear home and pick up where I had left off. Of course, given the disdain I had displayed for the Shute books up until then, I could not let on to my parents that I was that deeply engrossed in On the Beach; I simply let them believe I was in my room studying. By suppertime, I had finished it.
I picked up my battle-scarred (and signed) first edition of On the Beach this past summer, and reread it after thirty-some years, and it was every bit as compelling this time around. Naturally, some of the technology is hopelessly outdated, and some of the countries at odds with one another back then are best buddies nowadays. But the spirit of the book rings very true, and the craftsmanship is rarely equalled nowadays among contemporary authors. And I would come to find out that this was not even his best book. Not by a long shot…