Monday, April 30, 2012

Michael Knight writes about Americans in Japan immediately after WWII.

Of all the war stories I have read over the years, I do not think I have ever read one concerning the American occupation of Japan immediately after WWII.

The Typist

Michael Knight’s The Typist (208 pages, Grove Press, $14) tells the story of Francis Vancleave, a timid guy from the South who learned typing from his mother and then found himself, at the close of the Second World War, being sent to Tokyo to work with MacArthur’s occupation forces.

Van, as he is called, lives in barracks with men who fought in the Pacific, and he feels a bit self-conscious about his non-combatant role. He makes friends with Clifford, his roommate, and although Clifford urges Van to take up with a local girl, as he has done himself, Van stays true to his young wife at home, even if he puts her out of his mind for long stretches as a time.

Clifford has a few scams with shady local characters, but Van manages to keep out of the worst of all that. He does go out occasionally with Clifford and his girl, who is an exotic model in a local department store. He also makes friends himself with some of her friends, even if he feels self-conscious in doing so.

Even more upsetting (and rewarding) to Van is his involvement with MacArthur and his family, coming after glimpsing MacArthur’s seemingly lonely son one day when he was at the general’s house delivering some materials that he had typed. When he hears that this boy Arthur’s birthday is approaching, he sends him some toy soldiers. Not long after this, MacArthur comes to the young man and asks him whether he would be willing to spend time with his son. MacArhtur likes Van’s southern accent, and he prefers that his son pick that up rather than the affected British speech of his tutor.

Van and the young eleven-year old become friends, and Van starts to look forward to his Saturdays at the MacArthur house.

Complications arise when Clifford is discovered to have been consorting with communists. As part of the fall-out of Clifford’s impending arrest, Van is asked to stop his visits to the MacArthur boy.

As Van’s world in Tokyo starts to collapse, he nevertheless finds the opportunity to attend a football game that MacArthur stages on the site of the atom bomb attack on Hiroshima. There is some historical truth to the staging of this football game, but as Knight explains, it actually happened in Nagasaki. MacArthur was trying to establish a new spirit of cooperation on the site of mass destruction, but for many who attend, especially including Van and the young Japanese girl who accompanies him, the effect is nearly devastating.

This bittersweet mood suffuses the novel, and Knight has created a masterpiece of restraint and understatement. What happens to Van when he returns home and his success, or lack of success, at setting up his life there is beautifully told.

Knight tells a wonderful story here, and a reader comes away feeling that the depth of feeling that results is more than one might have anticipated.

Michael Knight

The Typist is available at Powell's, Vroman's and Amazon.

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