Wednesday, January 13, 2010
DRIFTWOOD by THEODORE K. STRYKER
Reviewed by Manson Solomon
During World War II, American servicemen left their mark in the form of the now famous “Kilroy Was Here” graffiti scrawled on walls all over Europe, wherever the GI’s had been. There is a variety of conflicting legends regarding the origin of the practice, and the places where the drawings of the cartoonish man peering over a wall were to be found, but the essential message was unmistakable: “The Yanks were here, we made a difference, we were real, we were triumphant!”
The fourth story in Theodore Stryker’s collection of Short Stories, Essays and Other Writings, entitled “The Second Sinking of the USS Arizona,” poignantly chronicles the thwarted effort by Jim Healy, a decorated World War II veteran, to honor a fallen comrade who had gone down with the USS Arizona at Pearl Harbor. Jim journeys all the way to Hawaii only to find, ironically, an impossibly long line of Japanese tourists waiting to view the Memorial, and he has to catch his plane back to the States without accomplishing his mission. Subsequently, upon hearing of Jim’s death, the author, himself a veteran, seeks to make amends for his friend’s disappointment by going out to Hawaii and scrawling on the Arizona Memorial wall, with his wife’s eyebrow pencil, “Jim Healy was here.”
The central message of the book, as the back cover tells us, is that the author, Ted Stryker, “though he did not set out to write for publication, as he approached the end of his life . . . felt a need to leave something behind, hopefully something of value.” Such is the spark for many a memoir: to reassure oneself that one’s life had meaning, that one was indeed here.
So what are to make of this collection of short stories (which we are told in the usual front page disclaimer are fiction, “products of the author’s imagination,” but which we are also told in the back of the book “accurately record events in his life”), and essays (which are manifestly the author’s own opinions) and “other writings”?
Firstly, it is clear that the Stories are not pure fiction, but are drawn from the author’s own experience, whether directly personal or overheard or read about. Perhaps the “fiction” disclaimer gave him license to do some creative embellishing, but had they not been based on significant real-world events, what would he be leaving behind? Literature? No, these stories are not the stuff of literature; the professional craftsmanship is not there. As memoir, imprints of the man’s presence in the world, they are interesting and entertaining, and perhaps valuable, as he had hoped, but they are not literary in any sense. To appreciate the stories, and connect with the man’s life, one has to overlook the clichéd writing.
The Essays, being the author’s views on matters of the day, will be of great interest to the author’s children and grandchildren, staking out Grandpa’s claim to have been a living, breathing human being with opinions, telling them what sort of man he was -- but they are not abiding contributions to the debates which will live on in the public mind. Ditto the “Other Writings.”
In short, this poignant memoir, while unlikely to light a great fire in the world of literature, will nevertheless undoubtedly stir the hearts of those who knew Ted Stryker personally, and in that sense he has indeed left behind “something of value”, as he hoped.