Oakley Maxwell Hall (1920-2008) was not a great novelist, but was a highly skilled one, turning out twenty novels, most of them western or mystery genre novels (and in the case of the Ambrose Bierce series, both), the most highly regarded of which was Warlock (1958).
His last novel, Love & War in California (2007) is, very likely, the last autobiographically based World War II novel that will be written. Like one of the biggest early best-selling WWII novels, From Here to Eternity, it is not primarily about the war. It is also less autobiographical than it may seem. Like the novel’s protagonist, who also has a first name that seems like a last name, Hall was born amidst some affluence in San Diego (La Jolla, Mission Hills) and in the divorce was his mother’s child. She took him to Hawai’i, not just to ruder San Diego lodgings. Hall graduated from Berkeley and was a Marine Corps officer in the Pacific, emerging as a captain.
The novel’s protagonist, Payton Daltrey, is a junior at San Diego State when the novel begins on campus 8 Dec. 1941, joins the army before finishing college, rises no higher than sergeant (from which he is busted for stopping a rape by a GI) on the European front.
The account of Payton’s war is quite clipped, as is reporting on his postwar life that included writing a scandalous roman clef in which San Diegoans recognized or thought they recognized the characters, which was the case with Hall’s 1953 bestseller, The Corpus of Joe Bailey.
The bulk of the book follows Payton between the day after Pearl Harbor and enlisting. He is not a “cocksman,” as his adored (by their father as well as by Payton) older brother Richie is, and his (loathed by Payton) fraternity “brother” Johnny Pierce. It is in arranging a Tijuana abortion for Bonny who had been impregnated by Johnny that makes her grateful to Payton, though she is very clear that she is going to become a doctor and marry a doctor. Her family also regards Payton as declass© and not at all suitable marriage material.
One major sideplot involves Liz, the brother’s girlfriend, determined to make her way to/in Hollywood with the help of the notorious womanizer Errol Flynn. Another involves Dessie, a delicate white prostitute run by the black pimp Calvin, who had been part of the “tutti fruti” San Diego high school backfield with Payton. It also included an ambitious Nisei who was taken from UCLA to the concentration camp at Manzanar, on the east side of the Sierra Nevada mountains. (There was also a Latino, who does not reappear in Payton’s life. Payton and Bonnie visit Manzanar.)
I wonder if San Diego, ca. 1941, was as multicultural as it appears in the novel, though the American Legion also is shown involved in trying to strong-arm a Socialist Worker weekly out of existence. And there is an echo of the LA Zoot Suit riot, too.
Working for that paper outrages Payton’s fraternity brothers. Having launched into the Love of His Life (Bonny), he can’t be bothered by getting the silent treatment from them. His second job as a delivery boy also gets him into trouble, culminating in accidental canicide.
His father having fallen in the Depression and wanting to couple with a daughter of the local elite, Payton is very class-conscious. And not eager to follow his brother and Johnny Pierce off to war, though he does. He would have graduated a midshipman if he had finished out the 1941-42 year. (Hall went into the Marines in 1943 and was not on the scene at the Battle of the Bulge. It is a tribute to his skills that Payton’s memories of it seem so authentic.)
There is a Hollywood mystery that is not very compelling, various damsels in various distress, class and racial/ethnic discrimination, and fumbling with how to become a writer (unable to take the good advice Payton gets, he wants to write hard-boiled detective fiction).
I think that Hall tried to stuff too much sulbaltern history into the book, including a Nazi human-skin lampshade.
The writing is crisp'”not stereotypical Hemingway pastiche. The dialogue is snappier and more explicit (even expository) than Hemingway’s, but even waiting more than six decades after the end of Hall’s war, Hall still worked in the shadow of Hemingway, especially of A Farewell to Arms. (Payton’s situation was more than of Bellow’s Dangling Man, though a lot more happens to Payton.)
At a bookstore appearance here,* Hall said that he tried to write a novel set in the San Diego of his youth twenty years earlier but could not figure out how to end it. (That would still have been about three decades “late” for a WWII veteran’s war novel.) With age, he also said, he was more intent on happy endings. He provided one, though it verges on being a deus ex machina in the form of a return to Tijuana.
Had he written about the early 1940s during the 1950s, as most WWII veterans who were would-be writers did, I think the book would have been quite different. There is no question that Hall knew the times, but I wonder if the attacks on zoot-suiters and a visit to Manzanar would have been included. Even fiction about having worked on a leftist (however anti-Stalinist) paper would still have been dangerous for a writer.
After writing this review, I found an account I wrote of an April 2007 bookstore appearance by Hall promoting his then-new novel in the now-gone Stacey’s Bookstore in downtown San Francisco. I am not altering the present tense from what I wrote in my journal then:
Oakley Hall was back in town (from Virginia City, where he now lives) promoting his 26th book, Love and War in California. The war is his own one, Word War II. Born in 1920, he was a Berkeley senior when Pearl Harbor was attacked and he became a Marine captain, though the protagonist of the book in a passage he read is a Marine sergeant who is busted all the way back to PFC after refusing to back down from having arrested a rapist instead of looking the other way.
He said that he remembered the San Diego in which he grew up before the war in vivid detail. (He was born in Mission Hills.) In answer to a question about convincingly writing about past times (most of his novels are set in the 19th century), he stressed that the telling detail is necessary'”convincing, not necessarily authentic detail. Speaking a few yards “south of the slot” (as San Francisco’s Market Street was known when it had cable cars running on it), he took for an example that no one alive knows what it smelled like 120 years ago'”certainly different. The historical novelist has to provide something that fits with what readers now think it must'”or at least might'”have smelled like then.
Asked why he has only now published a novel based on his World War II experiences by someone whom I think was expecting the Iraq adventure to be the answer, he said that he tried to write it 20+ years ago, but didn’t know how to end it. He said that he is at an age where he wants happy endings, and especially wanted one for this book — which is autobiographical only in the stateside (San Diego) part (the protagonist was obviously not an officer).
He said that he did not plan to write any more novels, but wanted to write about books that inspired him, such as Jane Eyre and Knights of the Round Table books. He recalled that when he was young he copied passages he thought were particularly effective. (He is not the first writer I’ve heard recall such exercise in making the sentences of admired writers pass through their fingers as a way of accustoming them to writing well. I don’t see why it would not work for those writing on computers as well as it did on those working on typewriters!)
His wife Barbara has had a stroke and was missed by several of those in attendance. He said that his first girlfriend was also named Barbara and has appeared in various guises (good and bad) throughout his oeuvre, so that the dedication of his last novel to Barbara is dual.
Asked about the rewards of teaching (he founded and headed the MFA writing program at the University of California, Irvine for two decades), he said they were very great, that it was very gratifying to help (or at least provide the opportunity for) someone to write a first novel and surpass the teacher'”albeit preferably not by too much. He mentioned Richard Ford and Michael Chabon. He recalled that the latter was so good (writing The Mysteries of Pittsburgh) that he made his classmates write better, and that as a result all of them produced novels that were published.
There were no questions about the movies based on his novels (Warlock and Downill Racer), but two about the libretto he wrote based on his friend Wallace Stegner’s novel Angle of Repose (with music by Andrew Imbrie, a composer whose work I loathe). He recalled that someone else had worked on the adaptation but did not satisfy the potentate of the San Francisco Opera then, Kurt Herbert Adler. At the time, Hall did not realize that Stegner’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel had appropriated (expropriated in the view of many) the writings (particularly letters) of Mary Hallock Foote. He is now in the “expropriated” camp, though retaining great esteem for Stegner, whose Beyond the Hundredth Meridian he said (in answer to a question about his own 1997 novel Separations) he proclaimed the best book about the West ever written. (IMO,Stegner’s biography of Major John Wesley Powell focuses on the central question, the aridity of the west'”of which the now vastly oversubscribed waters of the Colorado River are only one instance).