Characters “chuckle” all the way to disaster in an alternate version of history
Pearl Harbor: A Novel of December 8th. By Newt Gingrich and William R. Forstchen. Contributing Editor: Albert S. Hanser. St. Martin’s/Thomas Dunne, 366 pp., $25.95.
By Janice Harayda
Former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich writes fiction about as well as Danielle Steel could draft legislation. But I wouldn’t be too hard on his alternate version of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, changed by the presence of one man who decides to take part at the last minute.
It’s true that if people stereotyped men’s novels as they do women’s, critics might call this book “dick lit” without the sex. But Pearl Harbor isn’t as bad as, say, Tom Clancy’s novels. For one thing, it moves faster. And if Gingrich and co-author William Forstchen give you plenty of descriptions of weapons and strategy, you’re never drowning in an alphabet-soup of acronyms as in Clancy’s lumbering behemoths.
Pearl Harbor also provides many moments of unintended comedy. Some of these occur when the novel takes us inside the minds of world leaders. At the Atlantic Conference, Winston Churchill looks gravely at Franklin D. Roosevelt and says, “Mr. President, I feel that despite all our problems in Russia, North Africa, and the Atlantic, I also have to remind you that we could face a very nasty situation in the Pacific.”
William Manchester was never like this, and neither was his English. Lynne Truss might have written Eats, Shoots and Leaves for Gingrich and Forstchen, who pile on run-on sentences and other forms of mangled grammar. “No time to replace the wires, splice, and tape,” they write after an American plane takes a hit at Hickam Field, leaving you wondering whether they intended “splice” and “tape” as verbs or nouns.
Even so, Pearl Harbor shows that the Americans, British, and Japanese had more in common than you might imagine. One is they all “chuckled” a lot when faced with world-shattering events. Gingrich and Forstchen and tell us Churchill “chuckled” as the German bombs rattled his bunker. Admiral Yamamoto “chuckled” over naiveté of the U.S. and “chuckled derisively” when he thought of its diplomats. And Commander James Watson of the U.S. Navy, the closest the book has to a hero, “chuckled” when asked by a British correspondent how many aircraft carriers were near Pearl Harbor. “You know I can’t tell you that.”
Gingrich and Forstchen say that this novels is the first in a series that will show how World War II might have turned out if the events of Pearl Harbor had taken place. On the evidence of this book, some characters will be chuckling all the way to V-J Day.
Best line: Many details of wartime life would be more memorable if they didn’t appear in grammatical train wrecks. The authors write of No. 10 Downing Street during the Blitz: “The windows, of course were all cross-hatched with tape, inside, blackout curtains darkened the room.” It’s interesting that air-raid precautions against air-raids were so primitive even in the British prime minister’s residence. But that fact appears in the kind of run-on sentence known as a comma splice (in which two independent clauses are joined with a comma instead of a conjunction, such as an “and” before “inside”). The sentence is also missing a comma after “course.”
Worst line (tie): No. 1: “James nodded his thanks, opened the wax paper and looked at bit suspiciously at the offering, it looked to be a day or two old and suddenly he had a real longing for the faculty dining room on campus, always a good selection of Western and Asian food to choose from, darn good conversation to be found, and here he now sat with a disheveled captain who, with the added realization, due to the direction of the wind, was in serious need of a good shower.” No. 2: “To withdraw backward was impossible.” So withdrawing forward was still an option?
Editor: Pete Wolverton
Published: May 2007 www.newt.org/pacificwarseries/
Conflict alert: A different imprint of St. Martin’s published my first novel. I almost never review books by my publishers but have made an exception in this case because Gingrich is talking about running for president in 2008. And this novel has had fewer reviews than you might expect for someone who may have his eye on the White House.
For more on the alarming number of characters in Pearl Harbor who “chuckled” on the way to diaster, see the Newt Gingrich Chuckle Meter, posted earlier today on One-Minute Book Reviews www.oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com/2007/07/30/.
© 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
Janice Harayda is has been the book columnist for Glamour, the book editor of the Plain Dealer, and a vice-president of the National Book Critics Circle.