The Danger of Amnesia: John Shannon’s “The Taking of the Waters”
By Michael HarrisOctober 20, 2016
The Taking of the Waters by John Shannon
This is nonsense, I once heard a literary agent tell a panel audience at the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books. The myth that undiscovered masterpieces are sitting in desk drawers or on computer hard drives or in the lowest levels of the Amazon rankings or in dusty stacks in garages all across this broad land is just that, she said — a myth. Agents, editors, and publishers aren’t fools. If our books were good enough, they would indeed be published — and acclaimed. If they haven’t been published, they aren’t good enough. Period. End of story.
The tough-love, cut-the-crap approach has its virtues — it clears the sinuses, at least. But I knew the agent was wrong. Why? Because I happened to be intimately acquainted with an undiscovered masterpiece, John Shannon’s 1994 novel The Taking of the Waters, his three-generation saga of the American Left, published by a very small Oregon press, John Brown Books, and promoted hardly at all.
Shannon grew up in San Pedro, served in the Peace Corps in Malawi, and lived in England, Australia, and South Africa before returning to Southern California. He was active in the New Left while there still was one. He published Courage, a novel of African revolution in the style of Graham Greene, and Broken Codes, a spy thriller set in London. But by 1994, Reaganite politics and Friedmanite economics had solidified in the United States like quick-drying concrete. Nobody wanted to read about the Left, Old or New. Shannon had lost his audience.
So he reinvented himself as a mystery writer, exploring the social history of Los Angeles neighborhoods in a dozen Jack Liffey detective novels, much as the Swedish duo of Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö had peeled back the layers of Stockholm.
But what was Shannon supposed to do with The Taking of the Waters? It was his magnum opus — the product of his maturity, his prime. Never had he written better prose or tackled so big a subject. He had created several unforgettable characters, and had found a way to balance visceral excitement with relentless intelligence, to render history in intimately human terms. His other works led up to and away from it, like alluvial slopes around a mountain.
He had to do something, and print-on-demand hadn’t been invented yet. So he put out a largely self-financed paperback edition (with an ugly cover), which got passed along rather improbably from friends of Shannon’s to friends of mine at the Los Angeles Times. And I reviewed Waters. I wrote 700 words about it and waited to see what would happen in the absence of other reviews, a national advertising campaign, publisher-paid book tours, etc. Shannon, who (full disclosure) has become a good friend, waited too.
No surprise: Nothing happened.
Except in France, where in 2004 the novel was translated by Jean-François le Ruyet and published by L’Atalante of Nantes in three volumes under the collective title La rafle des eaux.
After that … more nothing.
I began my review:
Los Angeles stole the Owens Valley’s water. Nobody argues otherwise. Even Hollywood, one of the indirect beneficiaries of the crime, lifted it out of history and into the popular imagination with Chinatown.
Yet a crime so huge seems beyond rectifying. Who would dismantle the city to make the desert green again? We can’t spit out what the L.A. oligarchy — including The Times — did in the 1920s, any more than we can swallow it. It sticks in our craw.
Still, Chinatown deals only with the San Fernando Valley end of the water theft, not with Owens. It appeared in 1974, when post-’60s defeatism had already set in. (“Forget it, Jake.”) The arch-villain floats above any reckoning. The System is impervious to change. Our only defense against the pain of acknowledging this is amnesia — and amnesia is dangerous.
Shannon’s epigraph, from Walter Benjamin, is worth quoting here: “… even the dead will not be safe from the enemy if he wins.” Or, as Kiel Everett, a leader of the farmers who make a final stand against the LA water barons, says in the first third of the novel: “Not everything that wins is honorable, but to be honorable you have to win” — because it’s the winners who write history. What they don’t write, we forget.
Everett is talking to Eugene Debs (“Slim”) Trumbull, the young son of his lover, New York feminist and muckraker Maxi Trumbull, who with characteristic generosity and courage has thrown herself into the cause. Everett rallies his neighbors to an inspiring, if temporary, victory — after which force and financial chicanery prevail and Maxi dies in a despairing attempt to dynamite the Los Angeles Aqueduct.
“Shannon’s shrewdest tactic,” I wrote,
is to have a foreigner, German journalist Dieter Sachs, narrate the story […] America seems off-center and bizarre to Sachs; seeing things as he does, we are moved to reconsider them.
At first with a wry, almost anthropological detachment, then with mounting anxiety, Sachs accompanies his American friend and counterpart, Clay Trumbull (Maxi’s grandson), on a doomed last crusade into the Owens Valley.
Clay dies or is murdered in a car crash — we learn on the first page — and Sachs must piece together, in tense, wary dialogues with an 80-year-old Slim, what happened not only to Clay but also to nearly a century of left-wing activism.
Sachs, the jaded, cynical European, knows all about defeat and disillusionment. “You stayed in the [Communist] Party,” he tells Slim. “Tell me why so much horror was done in [its] name […] And why it failed.”
“I don’t plan to discuss the Soviet Union.”
“Cambodia, then. Genocide, for Christ sake.”
Slim doesn’t have to be told. His wife killed herself after Party members trooped obediently into a church basement in 1956 to hear a reading of Khrushchev’s “secret speech” about Stalin’s atrocities — one of Shannon’s most powerful scenes — and emerged shaken to the core. By then, Reds like Slim had been purged from the American labor movement; he had endured exile and federal prison. Was it all for nothing? Were even his victories a mirage? For he had taken Everett’s advice: he had won.
It’s bad enough to forget about the defeats of ordinary people, Shannon wants us to realize. It’s even worse to forget the victories. The most thrilling and revelatory part of The Taking of the Waters is the middle section, in which Slim leads an epic strike at a Michigan tractor factory (based on the 1936–’37 Flint, Michigan, sit-down strike at General Motors), braving management goons and National Guard tanks.
Yes, once upon a time workers actually won (at least white workers), and what economist Paul Krugman calls the “Great Compression” — declining inequality in the United States from the 1940 to 1970 — got under way. Credit FDR and the New Deal and World War II, but hardline Commies like Slim also played a role. We’ve seen his kind in novels before — the organizer of the fruit-pickers’ strike in John Steinbeck’s In Dubious Battle, the mentor of the title communist in Philip Roth’s I Married a Communist. They aren’t lovers, like Maxi. They’re more like warrior monks, ever ready to sacrifice the individual, including themselves and their families, for the collective good. They aren’t always likable people, but they help sand down the rough edges of capitalism for a while.
The victorious strikers “marched out to a celebration and street dancing no one saw the like of again ’til V-J Day,” Slim tells Sachs. “And within four days, I’m not exaggerating, the union had half a million members all over autoland. Companies like U.S. Steel were so scared they recognized their unions without a fight. We’d done it.”
And it stayed done, until the Cold War came, and McCarthyism, and capital’s long march back to its former position of dominance — something many Sanders and Trump voters seem to have become aware of only yesterday. How had all this happened? We’d forgotten.
Unlike Maxi and Slim, Clay doesn’t have a cause to fight for. By the 1980s, the Left is gone. Clay’s a mess. In the final third of the novel, he rumbles around on his Harley or in a big Cadillac convertible called the Blue Motherfucker like a parody of Hunter S. Thompson, picking on any available journalistic target. Where better than the waterless Owens Valley, where mobsters have set up shop to film S&M porn? Who better than “Max Thirty” — Clay’s byline — to investigate on behalf of the women they're exploiting? His crusade, I wrote, “doesn’t even pretend to counter the main thrust of electron-swift, media-savvy, post-industrial capitalism, and he knows it.” But Clay can’t be dissuaded, and Sachs reluctantly tags along to keep his friend from harm.
To do this, the previously unflappable German must submit himself to the American Absurd — a 100-mile-per-hour car chase, a seedy Nevada whorehouse, being tortured over a stove burner (the psychological scars of which Shannon describes so precisely that we never need wonder again what that would be like), and finally admitting he has feelings for a hippie girl whose New Age ideas he finds ridiculous but whose solitary courage as a picketer has moved him.
He knows the campaign against the sleazeball pornographers will lose. Why? Because of amnesia, and that other American flaw, impatience.
No one had taken the question of success or failure seriously enough to plan for it. This wasn’t the [Vietnam] generation who’d stopped a war, or the earlier one who’d fought their way through the 1930s. Most of the lessons had been lost. Only a sketch remained: you marched around with banners and you got on TV and then you won.
Nobody remembers “the years of failures, the illegal sit-ins, the civil disobedience, all […] that had been necessary” to bring about social change.
After Clay’s death, Sachs looks down at the dry channel of the Owens River and wonders if the water — literal and symbolic — “will come back some day.” He predicts it will, “with a roar.” In 1994, this sounded like wishful thinking. But then isn’t now. If an avowed socialist can run for president, why can’t a novel of the Left rise from the grave and win the readership it deserves?
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