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The Sand Pebbles ()

Brothers Judd Top 100 of the 20th Century: Novels

It is one of the great ironies of American life that the U. S. military, though it is necessarily one of our least democratic institutions, offers many young people a unique opportunity to realize the American dream.  This is so because in addition to providing them with training and instilling discipline, it has, for the most part, functioned as a meritocracy.  Which is not to suggest that it has been devoid of politics or racism, but that in general it has been a place where a talented young man could rise through the ranks, provided that he could tolerate the restrictive lifestyle and function within the command structure.  This tension though--between opportunity on the one hand and the requirement of submission on the other--makes the military a natural setting for a novel, where an author can exploit these conflicting themes.

Most would probably argue that From Here to Eternity is the greatest American novel of military life (as distinguished from novels about actual combat, like Red Badge of Courage and The Killer Angels), indeed it made the Modern Library Top 100 and it is excellent, but The Sand Pebbles is even better and Jake Holman is one of the quintessential heroes in all of American literature.  Jake, like his fellow anti-heroes RP McMurphy and Cool Hand Luke, or for that matter Huckleberry Finn, is smart, likable and a natural leader, but bristles at the many petty indignities of life.  His fierce sense of injustice got him stuck in the Navy in the first place, in order to avoid a jail sentence for punching a spoiled rich kid, and he has transferred from ship to ship, seeking the one with the least responsibilities and the loosest discipline.  He's deeply ambivalent about the Navy but does love one thing about it, the chance to work with ship's engines.  He values this opportunity for what is, significantly, a political/spiritual reason :

    Machinery only cared about what a man knew and what he could do with his hands, whether he
    was a coolie or an admiral, and that was the secret, very good thing about machinery.

And Jake's desire to be judged in this impartial and unprejudiced way carries over into his relations with others, so that he seeks to judge them on these terms also :

    The coolie was an engineer; well then, he was not a coolie, he was another engineer like Jake

His devotion to this simple democratic code, and his loyalty to people who measure up to its standards, especially the coolie Po-han who he takes under his wing, makes Jake very appealing and, when added to a thrilling adventure story set in the China of the 1920's, a society perched on the edge of Revolution, produces one of my all-time favorite novels (and movies).


Grade: (A+)


Book-related and General Links:
    -OBIT : RICHARD McKENNA, NOVELIST, 51, DEAD  Former Sailor Won Success With The Sand Pebbles (NY Times, Sunday, Nov 1, 1964)
    -Richard M. McKenna (Space Light)
    -The Sand Pebbles page (Stuart Fernie)
    -ESSAY : The Chiefs Are Not Happy (Master Chief Machinist's Mate (Surface Warfare) Mark Butler, U.S. Navy, Naval Institute Proceedings)

    -INFO : The Sand Pebbles (1966)(Imdb)
    -BIO : Robert Wise (American Film Institute)
    -FILMOGRAPHY : Robert Wise (Imdb)
    -The Sand Pebbles
    -DISCUSSION : The Sand Pebbles Movie Forum
    -REVIEW : A BUCKET OF STEAM by Chick Sheehan


Just to let you know that the Forum link to the Sand Pebbles has changed to:

Best regards,

- Crispin Garcia

- Dec-09-2004, 17:41