Buried in the 755 hyperdense pages of H.L. Humes’ Underground City (1958), is a good book. Unfortunately, wading through the bloat to find it is not worth the effort.
To be fair, Underground City has a good and suspenseful story line, inimitable setting, complicated characters and powerful prose. It’s let down by Humes’ propensity to break up the action with interminable political debate or to include scenes that add nothing to the action. In his review, New York Times book critic Orville Prescott praised Humes as “sublimely confident and alarmingly talented.” But Prescott added an enormous “but:” Underground City “contains a staggering array of repetitious and even irrelevant scenes. Its many prolonged conversations, some brilliant and some maundering close to surrealistic nonsense, drag on like tape recordings of collegiate bull sessions.” Prescott still thought Underground City was a must-read.
John Stone is a former OSS officer who worked with the French Resistance in Southern France during World War II. He’s a key witness in the Dujardin trial. Stone’s testimony is critical to convicting Dujardin as a collaborator. The French Communist Party, then France’s dominant political party, claim that Dujardin was part of the Resistance, a position that resonates with the French public who are beginning to view Americans with resentment and have collective amnesia about what really went down during the war. Humes didn’t make that up. As one recent nonfiction account of the Resistance explains, “The recognition that less than five per cent of the population had actively resisted the Nazis was soon replaced by the impression that everyone had resisted. “ Matthew Cobb, The Resistance: The French Fight Against The Nazis (2009).The Resistance is perhaps the only bit of pride the French can take away from the war. The country succumbed to the Nazi attack in six weeks, the population took to the road, and Nazi troops simply outflanked the build-up of French troops inside the fortresses known as the Maginot Line. After submitting to occupation, France shamed itself worse by collaborating with Hitler. Nazi brutality and round-ups of French Jews occurred with French complicity.
At the same time that the French are seeking to discredit Stone, Congressional anti-communists are questioning Stone’s loyalty because he had worked with a communist Resistance cell during the war. Humes deftly charts the transformation of the greatest generation into the repressive generation. For his part, Stone, a brave enough soldier who has done his duty, is literally crushed between two opposing forces.
Underground City has already gotten its second chance. It was republished in 2007, but is again out of print. It’s amazing that the novel does not hold up because its backdrop is as fascinating and controversial a piece of history that you can get: the French Resistance and Operation Dragoon, a second D-day overshadowed by the Normandy landings. Stone is operating in southern France, trying to arm the Resistance in advance of the American landing. Of course, the anticipated landing takes place in Normandy. However, a second landing known as Operation Dragoon began on August 15, 1944, when the Allies invaded southern France.
Operation Dragoon caused some dissention between Churchill and Eisenhower. Churchill thought that the operation diverted forces from the Italian campaign. He argued in favor of a an invasion of the oil-producing areas of the Balkans that would serve a double purpose: deny oil to the Nazis and keep Stalin out, better positioning the free world on the postwar chessboard. Eisenhower argued that he needed the French ports of Marseilles and Toulon to supply the forces in France. The campaign succeeded in liberating both ports, forcing the Nazi army into retreat over the Vosges Mountains, and inflicting tremendous casualties on the Nazis. In parting, the Nazis did what they did so well: executing prisoners and massacring entire villages. Although Operation Dragoon achieved its objectives, it continued to receive harsh criticism after the war for slowing the Allied advance in Italy and enabling the Red Army to reach Vienna first. Lieutenant General Mark Clark, commander of the U.S. Fifth Army in Italy, assailed Operation Dragoon as “one of the outstanding political mistakes of the war.”
Humes competently recounts the military debate. He portrays the fraught tension that gnawed upon resistants; the risk of capture, betrayal, imprisonment, torture, execution or deportation to concentration camps always loomed. Humes describes the political bickering among cells and the role of the marquis, the groups of French workers who fled to the mountains rather than submit to forced labor in Germany. If you want to learn more about the French Resistance, Cobb’s account is the real must-read. The courage of these civilians becomes unimaginable in the face of the magnitude of Nazi reprisals including executions of scores of French hostages for every Nazi death and brutal torture that featured pre-Guantanamo Bay waterboarding. The courage of the men and women of the Resistance in sabotaging railroads and factories, supplying information to the Allies, assisting downed pilots, and printing underground newspapers is matched only by their courage in meeting their deaths.The Resistance did not wipe out France’s shame but it did restore a drop of honor.
Humes’ life is a story in itself. Humes grew up in Princeton, N.J. He enrolled at MIT at 16, but left to enlist in the wartime navy. Humes, along with George Plimpton and Peter Matthiessen, founded the noted literary magazine, The Paris Review, in Paris in 1953. Humes slowly descended into mental illness assisted by large amounts of LSD supplied by Timothy Leary. His escapades included serving as campaign manager for Norman Mailer when Mailer ran for mayor of New York City and passing out cash around the Columbia University campus. He claimed to have developed a massage cure for heroin addiction. Humes hung out in his daughter’s college dormitory. He became deeply paranoid, although some of his paranoia had roots. Matthiessen did use The Paris Review as a cover for his two years of work for the CIA. (Matthiessen is worth a read. Try his Shadow County Trilogy. I’m planning to give some of his other novels a try.) Humes was indeed being followed: his daughter discovered through a Freedom of Information Act request that the FBI had been monitoring Humes for twenty-five years. In Underground City, a character plunges into despair about the certainty of nuclear annihilation. Humes followed suit, convinced that the world was about to end. He died a street person in Massachusetts.