Estimated reading time: 7 minutes
James A. Michener has shown himself capable of penning profound novels over the course of his career, the kind to explore the human condition at depths few are capable of reaching. The Drifters is one of his best-known novels, telling the story of a young group of people in the 1960s who, by pure chance, all meet at a bar in Spain, and decide to travel the world on hedonistic and philosophical pursuits.
Table of contents
James A. Michener Plunges into the Forsaken Generation
Seen some fifty to sixty years after they’ve passed, the 1960s have become perceived as an era ruled by sex, drugs and rock n’ roll, drastically oversimplifying the trials and tribulations of an entire generation caught in the midst of perhaps the most drastic cultural change in human history. In his novel The Drifters, James A. Michener explores the era through the lives of six young people, all meeting by chance at a bar in Spain.
The novel is told through the perspective of a travelling businessman, Mr. Fairbanks of the World Mutual Bank in Switzerland. He works as an investment analyst for the company, and just like Michener in his time, Mr. Fairbanks is more on the older side of the equation, perceiving the oncoming era of changes with more contempt and skepticism than anything else.
Just to give you some brief introductions, our first characters is Joe, a young American looking to dodge the Vietnam War draft by travelling the world. Next up is Britta, an 18-year-old girl from Norway looking to escape the drabness of her country. Monica used to be royalty in her country, now on the run and looking to stir up a rebellion. Cato is a young sophomore at the University of Pennsylvania, who becomes a runaway after his girlfriend is stabbed and killed. Yigal is a hero of the Six-Day war, now torn and unable to find his place in the world. Finally, there is Gretchen, an intelligent girl from Boston who, following a traumatic experience during a riot, decides to travel the world.
The first few chapters of the novel are dedicated to getting us acquainted with the numerous protagonists making up the main cast of the story, as well as getting them all together in the bar in Torremolinos, called the Alamo. Once they’re all together, the real journey begins as they experience all the town has to offer, before moving on to bigger and greater adventures.
Their adventures first take them to the town of Alte in Portugal where Monica and Cato discover LSD. They then move on to Pamplona in Spain where they run with the bulls and one of them gets gored, to Mozambique where things take a turn for the worse, and finally ending the great journey in Marrakesh, where they all meet their respective fates, some better than others.
The permanent temptation of life is to confuse dreams with reality. The permanent defeat of life comes when dreams are surrendered to reality.― James A. Michener, The Drifters
The Generations which Broke Free in The Drifters
As chaotic as the world and societies in it might seem, the truth is that we’ve all come to where we are because of tradition. Values and morality were decided upon long ago, and then passed down from one generation to the next, guiding them in their efforts to build a better world. Naturally, as time goes by those values slowly change to reflect reality, but we are all, in a sense, bound by them so long as we choose to live among others.
In the 1960s, however, something possibly unprecedented happened: a sudden, explosive and drastic change of the cultural guard. Old values were chucked out the window by the generation, to be replaced with completely opposite ideas, often out of pure spite for “The Man”. Though the movement was primarily seen in North America and Western Europe at first, it spread throughout the entire world to some degree, and left its marks on anyone who witnessed it.
In The Drifters, James A. Michener does his best to explore this period from a perspective which more or less matched his own at the time. It seems like the primary aspect he was trying to dissect was the way in which the young people broke free from ideas governing their societies for decades, if not more centuries.
Each of the characters we meet is, in one way or another, standing up against the world they were brought in, a world which they feel is hostile towards, a world which doesn’t want them there. Some of them rebel by taking drugs, others by putting their own lives in danger, without forgetting the ones trying to direct their hatred towards bigger and greater actions.
In The Drifters Michener, in my opinion, does a remarkable job at penetrating the psychology of each individual in the group, demonstrating how it is they think, and what pushes them to make decisions which, to us, sometimes seem completely absurd and self-defeating. I think he identified the heart of the matter correctly: the utter disregard and contempt towards young people from the older generations which created a schism many were unable to bridge. Their desperation and endless questioning of their existence is aptly put on display on numerous occasions.
In this country we get stuck with taxes, but in the old country we used to get stuck with bayonets.― James A. Michener, The Drifters
The Wandering Misfits
While The Drifters is, in my humble opinion, first and foremost a book about the counter-culture revolution and the minds of the youths caught up in it, it also doubles as something else: a globetrotting adventure showing many different cultures around the world. As a matter of fact, I find it to be a bit of a travel fantasy, in part due to James A. Michener‘s enchanting prose and profound historical knowledge (that last part is something he exemplified magnificently in The Source).
Wherever we are with our group of misfits, Michener ensures that we understand the cultural and historical context of the place, how it society came to be how it is, and how its people have grown to think over the decades. While we do enter with a certain amount of ignorance, as the characters become more educated, so do we.
If there’s one aspect of Michener‘s writing here which I believe deserves some serious commendation, it’s his ability to explore various issues from numerous perspectives, some of which I believe he did not share. For instance, while our protagonists obviously see the Vietnam War as something terrible, Michener introduces a character who argues the other way, and fairly reasonably. He always gives the other side of the argument a fair chance, and doesn’t portray those of dissenting opinion as villains.
Though our characters aren’t exactly doing very well, dealing with constant inner turmoil and hardly ever at peace with themselves, it becomes difficult not to envy them at times, or at least, the near-total freedom they experience. Their adventure almost becomes romantic at various stages before crashing back down to reality, as I assume it must have for many young people back then (and today as well).
Personally, I found it a little difficult to care about all of them at the start, but the novel is a long one (around 750 pages I believe), and we have more than enough time to develop sympathy for even the most rotten among them. As I came to understand them and their suffering better, they appeared to me not as mere characters, but as fates undoubtedly experienced by real people, somewhere, sometime.
|752||Dial Press||May 5 2015||978-0812986723|
The Final Verdict
The Drifters by James A. Michener is a groundbreaking work of historical fiction, exploring like few others could the tumultuous 1960s from the perspective of those at the heart of it. A profound meditation and exciting travel adventure, it’s the kind of book which leaves none indifferent, and is the perfect place to learn things about the counter-culture revolution no textbook can teach.
If you’re in search of a far-reaching novel centred on a group of young people cast adrift in the wide world during the and of 1960s and beginning 1970s and experiencing all it has to offer, then you’ll hardly find a better candidate to fill your bookshelf with.
James Albert Michener
(February 3, 1907 – October 16, 1997)
James Albert Michener was an American author who wrote many fictional works, the majority of them being lengthy family sagas taking place in specific places around the world, including Caravans, Sayonara, The Covenant and The Source.
In 1948 he won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction for Tales of the South Pacific, and he also published some non-fiction works, including The World is my Home and Sports in America.