Nevil Shutes America: Beyond the Black Stump

Nevil Shute’s America: Beyond the Black Stump

How do we know what we look like to others? They tell us, that’s how.

When Stan, sober geologist, good son and citizen of Hazel, Oregon, tells Molly that he or maybe his friend got a girl pregnant, and that the twelve year old boy next door may or may not be his son, Molly tells him: “That’s just the sort of thing that might have happened in the Lunatic.” Molly is from Lunacy, West Australia.

Stan disagrees:
“The Lunatic was in a foreign country, where people lived to standards that were wholly alien to the United States, drank to excess in an outlandish manner, swapped wives for pistols, and cohabited with native women. It was the way of foreign countries to behave like that and he could readily believe from his reading that worse things happened in France. But it was not the way of the United States. It was deeply insulting to suggest that things that happened in his home town could be in any way comparable with things that happened in the Northern part of West Australia. . .”

Nevil Shute describes this smiling small town and its smilingly kind citizens and the smiling, prim decency of America in 1950. As always, the description is exact, scientific, benevolent. And, as always, it is a just a little detached, a little uneasy, a little remote. As always, it is the description of a visitor. There are pleasant shaded avenues and white painted homes and Stan’s mother and Stan’s father and Stan’s Aunt watching TV in the evenings. There is good and bad and no alcohol. There is talk.

“Everybody here talks about the frontier. And says this is a frontier town. You’re pretty proud of that. But you’ve forgotten what the frontier’s like… honestly, you have. When your first tough guys broke through the Rockies from the East and found this lovely place they married Indian girls. You know it and you’re rather proud of it. Its part of the frontier legend. Well, the frontier’s moved on. Our country’s the frontier now. But when I told Helen this morning that I got a lot of half cast brothers and sisters she nearly threw a fit.”

How do we know what we look like to others? They tell us, that’s how. They tell us that we are a little civilized, but only a little. We don’t believe them. And so we never know. More…