Duke University Alumni Magazine

Look Back All the Green Valley

By Fred Chappell '61, A.M. '64. Picador/St. Martins, 1999. 278 pages. $24.

onald Hall once referred to William Stafford as "a poet of ordinary life." In his short stories and novels, Fred Chappell meets that description as he tells of daily life in the North Carolina mountains. He notices the everyday, celebrates it, and writes about it clearly without patronizing stereotypes.

Few North Carolinians are as talented in a single field as Chappell is in a whole handful relating to the literary arts. Once a Duke undergraduate studying poetry with William Blackburn, Chappell is now North Carolina's Poet Laureate. A recently published regional poetry anthology, Word and Witness (Carolina Academic Press, 1999), for which Chappell contributed the afterword, listed the winners of the state's seven major literary awards; Chappell has already won four of the awards (some more than once, for a grand total of ten). A member of the English faculty at

the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, he recently won the O. Max Gardner Award for distinguished teaching. He is a literary cheerleader, blurbmeister, and promoter of local talent--he was, for instance, the first to tout in print a "small-press," "regional" opus, Charles Frazier's Cold Mountain, which went on to win the National Book Award. Chappell's networking skills and selfless willingness to share center stage with his students compare only to Lee Smith and Clyde Edgerton.

Never away too long from his beloved Latin, French, or Shakespeare, Chappell loves the life of a scholar. But he's just too good to rest with his dusty tomes, and split his literary personality we must! For I love Fred Chappell for his storytelling--and we get back to it in his latest treasure, Look Back All the Green Valley.

This fourth and final book in Chappell's cycle of novels concludes Jess Kirkman's education, travels, and loves. Kirkman returns to his boyhood hometown in the North Carolina mountains. Chappell weaves in mystery, teasing the reader with coy hints of sex and infidelity. Kirkman's father looms huge in the work. We are driven all over the map, even into outer space, to find more meaning of his father's life and passing.

As Kirkman seeks a family burial plot, he tours his father's old, often secret, stomping grounds. This allows Chappell the wonderful opportunity to tell tales of each small town, holler, and mountain vista that Kirkman visits. My favorite sections are the weaving of stories within the story. We hear the inside scoop on mountain folk who lack electricity but hold on to sharp memories of events fifty years gone by. Later in the novel, Chappell detours into outer space. This is a tangent, a side turn best left marked "no exit," but I suppose the reader must allow the author one stab at science fiction.

Chappell has said that Look Back All the Green Valley represents the end of a twenty-eight-year project that included four books of poetry and four novels, noting that both quartets use the four classic elements of air, earth, fire, and water for context. An ambitious plan, no doubt, but each book must also stand on its own. Look Back All the Green Valley succeeds because the yearnings for truth, validity of experience, and youth are so heartfelt.

And I, the reader, want more. More stories, more novels, more Fred. This is no idle plea. Chappell seems to be summing up his literary life way too soon. His most recent poetry collection ends with these lines from the epilogue: "Goodbye, my friends. The sun has set. Now I lay me down to sleep." And take a glance at some of descriptive words in the titles of his last few books and poems: "farewell," "nocturne," "leave," "look back." There's a wistful, even melancholy air to some of his asides.

Quartets finished, Chappell does deserve a brief rest. Perhaps, though, there's hint of promise of more to come at the end of the book. Quoting Twelfth Night's Sir Toby, Chappell calls, "Thou art a scholar; let us therefore eat and drink. Marian, I say! a stoup of wine." Indeed, let the party continue.

--John Valentine

Valentine '71, M.Ed. '76, co-owner of the Regulator Bookshop, lives in Hillsborough, North Carolina.

The Terrible Hours: The Man Behind the Greatest Submarine Rescue in History

By Peter Maas '50. HarperCollins, 1999. 240 pages. $25.

ack in the boom-boom Eighties, when I was at Duke and Ronald Reagan was commander-in-chief, I spent three long, indistinguishable days and nights as a Navy ROTC midshipman aboard a nuclear submarine out of Charleston, South Carolina. Even though Tom Clancy's obscure breakout novel, The Hunt for Red October, had yet to catch on with the civilian public (it was originally published in 1984 by the U.S. Naval Institute Press), by 1985 the Navy's nuclear program was attracting the cream of the recruiting crop.

Smart-as-heck high-school graduates with no college experience were signing up for good money to learn physics, wear snappy blue jumpsuits and turtlenecks, and stalk pesky Soviets along the ocean floor. As far as naval duty went, subs had become the good life. The work was intellectually stimulating, the vessels were air-conditioned, relatively roomy, and fast, and the food was great. Midshipmen who sought slots as nuke-power officers used our training voyage to suck up to anyone with shiny brass lapels.

I would never have survived life as a submariner in the 1930s. In reality, few in the Navy did, for those were the days without sonar and before the atomic bomb unleashed nuclear power, when submarines were actually battery-powered surface ships that occasionally dipped beneath the surface. In fact, in the ten years before 1939, 700 men were lost in twenty submarines, leading sailors to dub submarine duty the "coffin service." As Peter Maas writes in his latest book, The Terrible Hours: The Man Behind the Greatest Submarine Rescue in History, if a submarine failed in those days, "every man on board was doomed. It was accepted that there would be no deliverance."

A prize-winning literary journalist, Maas has spent decades writing creative nonfiction prose that illuminates the heroics, treacheries, and moral quandaries of people outside the scope of ordinary American life, particularly in the world of organized crime. Often compared to such nonfiction chroniclers of the shadow-side of human nature as Joseph Wambaugh (The Onion Field) and Truman Capote (In Cold Blood), Maas combines keen observation with a sense of character and narrative, and the alliance has made many of his books enormously popular.

Now he has returned to his earliest days as an author to explore one of the most virtuous, albeit two-dimensional, archetypes of heroism--the real-life action figure who, through brains and grit, saves innocents from near-certain death. The Terrible Hours is a revised version of his first book, The Rescuer, written in the mid-1960s. "It sold about 300 copies," he said recently. "At that time, nobody was interested in a submarine that went down in '39."

The book recounts the story of an Annapolis grad named Charles "Swede" Momsen, who spearheads a harrowing effort to rescue crew members of the Squalus, a U.S. Navy submarine that sank in 240 feet of water off the coast of Portsmouth, New Hampshire, in 1939. Momsen, a marine researcher and submariner, was famous for inventing the "Momsen Lung," a piece of scuba-diving equipment that reduced the risk of decompression sickness, or "the bends." Before Momsen came along, it was standard procedure to treat downed subs as irretrievable.

The book often reads like a real-life Tom Clancy effort, which is a mixed blessing for any writer seeking to attain bestseller status while maintaining cachet as a serious journalist. The details are slathered on thick--"the aroma inside the hull, a combination of diesel fumes, sweat, dirty socks, and unwashed clothes, was something you never really got used to." The plot is filled with suspenseful twists, from flooding engine rooms and deadly chlorine gas to bad weather, snagged life-lines, and divers struggling to remain conscious while stretching the limits of 1930s deep-sea technology. The tale is well-paced and, thanks to its verisimilitude, maintains interest all the more.

Unlike past Maas works, however, the fleshing out of the pivotal characters occasionally achieves melodrama, as in this "high noon" account of Momsen facing the fearful possibility that the Squalus is beyond hope, and facing the impact the potential loss might have on his career: "For most people, the worth of their lives is a blend of shaded grays. But for Swede Momsen, that judgment would now come swiftly. And in black and white. There would be no in-between."

Most of Maas' real-life protagonists display brains and courage, though not always in the service of virtue. In The Valachi Papers (1968), he introduced readers to a government informant who played a catalytic role in confirming the existence of the Mafia, or Cosa Nostra, in post-war America. The U.S. Justice Department tried to sue Maas, claiming his book would be "injurious to law enforcement." Despite the government's seal of disapproval, twenty-four publishers turned the book down at first, telling him the Mafia "didn't sell." In fact, he helped create a new genre in the book industry (Mario Puzo's The Godfather was published a year later). The Valachi book became a bestseller and was made into what Maas called "one of the worst movies I've ever seen."

As the author of Serpico (1973), Maas told the true story of an undercover narcotics cop who dares to expose corruption within the New York police department. Returning to his crime roots, Maas wrote the 1997 bestseller Underboss, chronicling the life of Sammy "The Bull" Gravano, the Gambino crime family's second-in-command, whose testimony put his boss, John Gotti, behind bars for life.

After graduating from Duke, Maas moved to Paris, where he wangled his way into a brief stint at what is now the International Herald Tribune. After being drafted into the U.S. Navy during the Korean War, he spent the next fifteen years leading up to The Valachi Papers working as a journalist, primarily for magazines such as Collier's, Look, and The Saturday Evening Post. During the 1960s, he evolved into an investigative reporter and adopted the creative techniques of the "New Journalism," with its emphasis on literary detail, plot, and characterization. Eventually he joined fellow genre-bending reporters Tom Wolfe and Gay Talese as founding writers of New York magazine.

In The Terrible Hours, Maas is true to those reporting roots, displaying a admirable penchant for in-depth research. Ultimately, his book is a taut tale that entertains, despite occasional lapses into action-movie mode. With the current revival of interest in World War II and America's "greatest generation," don't be surprised to see a glossier take on the Squalus incident on HBO or at the local cineplex sometime in the near future.

--Kirk Kicklighter

Kicklighter '86 is a freelance writer and former U.S. Marine Corps captain. He lives in Carrboro, North Carolina, and at kickligh@earthlink.net

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