Resurrecting a book is probably like raising Lazarus. It can happen, but only with a little divine intervention. On the other hand, there are scientifically documented cases—like Their Eyes Were Watching God (and indeed all the works
of Zora Neale Hurston)—in which books have been resurrected and have stayed with us. So it is with both fear and hope that I will now, ladies and gentlemen, attempt to raise a book from the dead.
This book really is dead but should not be. Very occasionally you can find a copy in a used bookstore, but the only good sources for copies are libraries and the various online consortiums like abebooks.com and alibris.com. Nonetheless, this is a book worth searching out. The Ninth Wave, published in 1956 by late Berkeley Political Science Professor Eugene Burdick was, according to the cover blurb of my old paperback, a best seller, but I’ve never met a single soul, besides the friend who gave me the book, who has ever read it.
Burdick achieved much more fame with his books Fail-Safe (with Harvey Wheeler) and The Ugly American (with William Lederer), bona fide best sellers in 1962 and 1959, respectively. His life was rather short, 1918 to 1965, but Burdick’s interests ranged far. He was a Rhodes Scholar; one of his stories appeared in the 1947 O’Henry Prize Stories; and he studied American voting behavior. An excellent short biography of him appears on the UC Berkeley “In Memoriam” website.
The story concerns high school surfing buddies in Southern California beginning in 1939—how cool is that? In fact, on the web you will find the book frequently mentioned on surfing sites. And in the 25 year interval between when I first read, and then reread, the book, surfing was one aspect that stuck out in my mind. However, surfing is really just the frame of the book. It’s not a book about surfing, although the passages on the water are incredibly lyrical and evocative.
The friends, Hank and Mike, go off to Stanford (now just calm down, you Old Blues; after all Burdick was a professor at Cal, not Stanford). Hank becomes a doctor, Mike a lawyer and political behind-the-scenes man. The book’s got everything: class and race issues at Stanford, surfing, Hollywood, Coachella Valley, Fresno, Highway 99, Malibu, communists, the wine country, South of Market winos, North Beach, World War II, big time politics, California land grabs, sex.
The first half is epic in its complexity: Hank’s early years in his grandparent’s boardinghouse in North Dakota; his ending up in high school in Southern California; Mike’s unhappy socialist father; Mike’s affair with his high school English teacher, and later, Mike’s convincing a drunk to jump from the Golden Gate Bridge.
Actually, I think that’s part of its problem. There’s just too much; you get exhausted after a while, and put the book down. Then the next section keeps you up late into the night. It wants to be a serious novel, and it is, but it often reads like a pot boiler, and it seems to be one part Frank Norris and one part Raymond Chandler.
The cover of my Dell paperback edition (“5th BIG PRINTING”) from 1963 doesn’t help sort out the various strands. A blurb from the Chicago Tribune appears above the title: “A powerful novel … Violent actions, startling sexual episodes … bold, brash.” (Lest a small percentage of you get carried away by the “startling sexual episodes.” They were probably startling in 1956. Today, not so much. Not bad, however.)
And the cover art is an absolute cross between the cover of All the Kings Men and the poster for From Here to Eternity (Deborah Kerr and Burt Lancaster in the surf). Seriously, couple in the surf and politician in front of the microphone. No wonder, then, that the book has fallen on hard times.
But the strength of the book is that it makes us see our world through new eyes. Some great books, like Their Eyes Were Watching God, tell us a story we didn’t know; others, like these, tell us a story we think we know. And we soon learn that we really didn’t know it at all. The Ninth Wave seems frighteningly modern. Actually, I think it
speaks more to us today than perhaps it would have before 9/11. Mike devours everything he can read at Stanford, (while Hank devours anything he can eat) and slowly develops an operating principle for his life. We see the first flowering of the principle in a very discomfiting passage.
While at Stanford, Mike and Hank visit their philosophy professor, Moon, ostensibly to talk about some point from class, but the conversation takes a nasty turn, and as they leave, Hank says:
“You son of a bitch. You had to let him know that you know he is a queer. Is that the only reason you stopped by his office?’
“I don’t get it,” [Mike said]. “Being queer is all right, we say. Maybe it’s better than being normal. Maybe it’s being superior. But we can’t talk about this fine thing. It’s very bad to mention to a queer that he possesses this fine thing.”
“That’s not why you said it; to be nice and conversational,” Hank said wearily. “You said it to hurt him … You want to see if you can break through and find something that a person is scared of.’
Find the thing that people are afraid of and you can control them:
“I just start to itch with curiosity when I see a guy with a perfect little world, everything consistent, everything balanced … the guy happy in the middle of the world. I don’t believe in it. I have to see if it’s real.”
“And is it?”
“No, It never is. Everybody is always scared of something.”
Although it has taken a long time to get to this point in the novel, this idea—everyone is afraid of something; you just have to find out what it is—becomes the basis for the rest of the book.
At every turn, Mike pushes. He gets engaged to the daughter of Napa Valley winemakers and here’s what he says to his future in-laws:
I don’t know about breeding and good environment … Not a thing. But I know something about you. I know that both of you came from good old California families who left you a lot of money. And I know that neither one of you has earned a cent in your life. You even lose a couple thousand dollars a year on this vineyard.
And I know that you run the vineyard because it’s fashionable and you can play like the country squire and his lady. And I also know that you run a winery so that you can have a good excuse to lap up a couple of gallons of wine every day.
The first half is fascinating, but it’s the second half that becomes gripping, as Mike plays kingmaker for John Cromwell, a well-to-do lawyer whose main talent is that he’s a riveting speaker with populist notions. What’s disturbing is that Mike’s philosophy—and that’s really not the right word for it—is not in the service of anything, neither right nor left. Not to make himself governor or to help people. It’s just because he can do it.
Mike doesn’t rely on traditional politicking, but on the then-newfangled opinion polls and the shaping of a candidate to fit the polls. How Mike manipulates the Democratic nominating convention, and then the primary, is amazing and horrifyingly realistic, Premonitions of our last two national elections—as well as our California ones—run throughout the book. “Most voters don’t care about politics,” says Mike. “…They vote out of habit, because they’ve been told to vote. And they always vote Democrat or Republican. …But the really important ones are the eight or ten per cent that’re scared. They’re the real independents, the people whose vote can be changed.”
One can’t help but think of those polls that showed a substantial “undecided” group in the last election, when the rest of us were wondering how in the world someone could not know what to think about the two candidates. Mike says that’s it’s no longer political corruption that runs things—it’s money, power, influence, and manipulation of the voters. It’s all legal.
Burdick’s training as a political scientist infuses the entire book, albeit in an extremely depressing way. It is most clear when Mike is explaining the results of some polls he has conducted. He’s talking to Hank and to Georgia, with whom he is about to launch a desultory and long-lasting affair. She’s the daughter of a wealthy Jewish movie mogul. The second question in Mike’s poll is “In general, what sorts of things do you worry about?”
‘I don’t believe it,’ Georgia said. She stared at the paper. ‘Only eight per cent of them worry most about war and depression and the atom bomb. The rest are worried about their jobs and themselves.’
The third question is “What group in general do you think is most dangerous to the American way of life?”
“The answers always fall into five categories,” Mike said. “Just like clockwork. First, the people who say Big Business or Wall Street of the Bankers or Rockefellers or General Motors. I call that the ‘Big Business’ category. Second is the ‘Trade Unions’ category. That’s obvious…Third is the “Communist Conspiracy’ category. Fourth is a category you won’t like much. It’s the ‘Jewish Conspiracy’ category.
That’s where you put the people who say the Jews or International Jewry or Bernard Baruch. The fifth group is the “Religious Conspiracy’ … people who say the Pope or the Catholics or ‘those snotty Episcopalians’ or ‘those Mormons and all their wives’ … that sort of thing.”
Ask the question “What group in general do you think is most dangerous to the American way of life?” today and just substitute a few words in the answers: “Muslim,” “Al Queda,” “gay,” “immigrant,” “environmentalist.” The only ones that we don’t need to change are “Big Business” and “Jews,” I guess.
Not as much as changed in 45 years as we would like to think. As I was rereading the book, I could hear echoes of a recent TV ad proclaiming “Governor
Schwarzenegger’s secret plan to discredit California nurses”—or something to that effect.
I’m not normally a person who gives much credence to secret plans, but The Ninth Wave has given me pause.
The book is not all politics, however. There are many telling small moments, moments that raise it beyond (if not above) being “simply” a novel about politics: love, marriage, friendship are all major concerns here. Mike is not “evil” in any traditional sense-perhaps “amoral” is as close as we can come-and along with his brilliance and single mindedness, there is an overriding sense of emptiness. Although Hank drifts in and out of the novel (which is another problematic aspect, I think), it’s clear that the
bond he and Mike share is extraordinary, and at the very end, devastating. Mike’s wife seems to accept his affair with Georgia: it’s clear-to us and to Georgia-that Mike is not going to leave his wife. And there are scenes of great emotional power beyond political maneuvering: a fight with some thugs on a beach; a card game in a dorm room. At one point, Mike and Georgia drive out Wilshire Blvd., past UCLA, and then past the Veteran’s Home that’s still there. Georgia comments that the veterans must hate it and Mike asks how she knows:
I guess by looking at them. I think the sunshine and palm trees and salt air frustrates them. When you’re dying you ought to be in a cold, dreary climate. It would make it easier. They ought to build the veterans’ hospitals in the mountains and out on the deserts … where it’s lonely and bleak. It must be hard to sit around in the sun and watch people going by in sport shirts and know you’re going to die.
That seems to me to one of the clear Raymond Chandler moments, of which there are many. Georgia herself, for instance, is one of those slightly damaged but strong women who could easily be spending her evenings with Phillip Marlowe. The book is for all its emphasis on politics a very atmospheric book about California.
It’s astounding that Fail-Safe and The Ugly American were both made into movies, while The Ninth Wave has disappeared. It begs to be made into a movie—but the kind only Northern California’s own Saul Zaentz or Philip Kaufman could make: there’s a balance of depth of thought and great story telling that few directors could
probably capture. (Saul and Philip, are you reading this?)
If this novel were simply astonishing in its prescience, which it is, it would be worth resurrecting for that alone. But thankfully it’s more. Certainly, it should be on all “Best Books about California” lists, because the state is a major character. For all of its flaws, the book does have a claim to deserving a new life: it provokes the reader to look-at both the physical and political environments-through a new lens.
Today, the story itself not new; we’re living it in many ways, but the books help us to see that.