James Dickey collars you on the first page of To the White Sea and never lets go. At the outset, a B-29 tailgunner named Muldrow is shot down over Tokyo in the last days of World War II. The lone survivor of his crew, he flees the city in the midst of a firebombing and strikes out for Hokkaido, the northernmost Japanese island, where he aims to elude his pursuers in the snowy wastes. It is hard to imagine a man in a worse fix. As Muldrow says, "I was in the enemy's home territory. Everybody was my enemy."
"To the White Sea!" (275 pages. Houghton Mifflin. $22.95), the poet's third novel, is a first-rate adventure story, as relentless and mesmerizing as "Deliverance." Muldrow's laconic but earnest narration ("I don't mind talking, I'll tell you anything I know") provides the perfect deadpan accompaniment to his surreal adventures. Counting the plane ride that begins his journey, he battles air, fire, earth and water, countless Japanese, and even a wild goatlike creature called a serow that gores him viciously. An Alaskan trapper and hunter in civilian life, Muldrow is a consummate woodsman of almost mythic proportions. Describing his prowess, he even talks like Mike Fink or Paul Bunyan ("I was as strong as a bear and could climb like a squirrel"), but his boasting isn't empty: he can strike fire from flint and steer by the stars, and has a near-feral knack for camouflage.
He is also a killer with no more scruples than a wolverine. At first, he kills for clothes and food, but after a while, you realize he's not killing out of need or even panic. A pure predator, he's driven by instinct. "I had a taste for blood in my mouth in my whole body," he says in the middle of his journey. And when he decapitates one of his victims and stuffs the severed head in a water wheel, you know he's one sick puppy. But by the time you figure this out, it's too late to turn on him, He's already engaged your sympathy as a man completely out of place in the world, trying with all his might to get somewhere that looks like home. You root for him even after you know he is a monster.
Few writers make you squirm as Dickey can. "To the White Sea!" allows no easy assumptions about nature or violence or war. What makes it so haunting, though, what keeps you reading, is the beauty of the prose. Never straying he confines of Muldrow's plainspoken diction, Dickey works wonders with a near-perfect cadence and an ear for the apt phrase. When Muldrow rows across from Honshu to Hokkaido, he gets caught in the double wake of two huge ships: "The whole strait was swirling around me from both directions; it was like being sawed in two by water." "To the White Sea!" is both entertainment and literature: easy to read, it is not easy reading. Dickey means to give you the creeps, and he succeeds mightily in a great novel.