Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Brendan I. Koerner's "Now the Hell Will Start"

Brendan I. Koerner is a contributing editor and columnist at Wired magazine, and his work appears regularly in the New York Times and Slate ("The Green Lantern").

He applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, Now the Hell Will Start: One Soldier's Flight from the Greatest Manhunt of World War II, and reported the following:
Per the jacket copy, Now the Hell Will Start is a “true story of murder, love, and headhunters.” How many of these themes crop up on page 99?

There is, in fact, a wanton decapitation that occurs midway down the page. The perpetrator is a Japanese sniper, concealed in toxic jungles of northwest Burma. The killing is witnessed by Mahon East, a United States Army sergeant who’d miraculously survived an earlier bombing (though the fire scorched the skin off half his face):

East remembers a curious friend who wasn’t so lucky. During a later bombing raid, this young man peeked his head over the embankment behind which he and East had taken cover. “He wanted to see what [a Japanese plane] looked like,” says East. “He’s standing up and looking, and a sniper just cut his head right off, just like you took a knife to it. So, we lost him.

And with those chilling words, one section ends and a new one begins. The action moves to the White House, where President Roosevelt is awaiting the arrival of the serpentine Madame Chiang Kai-shek. Is this where the love comes in? Alas, no—FDR loathed the wife of China’s despot, thinking her rude and conniving.

So let’s say that page 99 of Now the Hell Will Start has a batting average of .667—check on the mayhem, but ixnay on the romance. But I’m certain that Ford Madox Ford would keep turning the pages, eager to follow the saga of Pvt. Herman Perry, the book’s starcrossed protagonist. At this point in the story, Perry is losing his mind in the Indo-Burmese wilderness, where he’s been sent to build the Ledo Road—a Sisyphean task if there ever was one. Monsoons, malaria, and tigers exact a lethal toil on the Road’s builders, the majority of whom are African-Americans assigned to segregated units. Jim Crow is their constant bane.

Soon enough, Perry will start smoking opium and ganja to ease his sorrow. This risky pastime contribute to the book’s central event: an emotionally shattered Perry shoots an unarmed officer to death, then flees into Burmese jungle.

It is there, amid a tribe of ornately tattooed headhunters, that Herman Perry will find bliss—and will marry the chief’s fourteen-year-old daughter.

Ford was an avowed fan of Heart of Darkness, so I believe he’d relish my tale of a real-life Mr. Kurtz.
Visit the Now the Hell Will Start website and Brendan I. Koerner's website.

--Marshal Zeringue