The Underground City is huge.
It combines a thriller about life underground in the French Resistance
and the Cold War, with an ambitious novel of ideas.
betrayals, amid closely observed historical detail about Paris and
Alan Cheuse, NPR literary critic and novelist,
on the books
excerpts from his essay in
Rediscoveries Two, David Madden, ed. (Carroll & Graf Pub; 1988)
[Humes is] one of the least-known and most enigmatic members of his writing generation....
are rare books in the best sense, great feasts and fiestas, and my
reencounters with them have convinced me that in the raw instinctual
days of early recognitions my admiration for Humes’ writing was not at
all misplaced. I recommended them at nineteen because I found the books
thrilling in ways that I could not at the time explain. Today, in my
late forties, I find them just as thrilling, and in addition I can offer a few ideas as to why.
Underground City stands as one of those rare birds of American fiction,
a true novel of ideas that never lacks for credible characters and a
powerful realistic plot. Humes divides the book into three large chunks,
and by the way in which he sets his scene, with a vast canvas of cloud
and sky on the opening of the day above Paris about a year or so
following the end of W.W.II, he seems to have nothing less in mind than
the desire to create a monumental story of epic range...
encounter a broad cast of characters and become engaged in a masterly
setup for a dramatization of the world of modern Western geopolitical
affairs. Just as the trial will rip open the wounds on the French body
politic still fresh from the war, the large central portion of the novel
gives us the narrative of Stone’s undercover work during the war—a
dense, dramatic novel with the novel that may be the best story of the
Resistance told by anyone in English....
Humes’ treatment of the
military and political aspect of the events would have alone been
brilliant enough, but he underlays these public matters with the burning
psychology of personal motives, stories of lost sons and troubled
too, a philosophical level to the book, the presentation of a number of
warring philosophies of history and politics, from the fated notions of
the ambassador on through the paranoid psychohistorical theories of the
Communist manipulator Picard (which, as critic James Bloom has recently
pointed out in a brief note on Humes, perhaps the only critical notice
that the book has received in the thirty years since its publication,
portends the now-fashionable strategies of paranoiac fiction as
exemplified in the work of Thomas Pynchon.) Moreover, there is a rich
mythological overlay to the story, beginning with the ambassador’s
descent from the heavens at the beginning of the book on through the
central return back in time to the years of the Resistance in the Stone
Resistance narrative, as well as a lot of seeming counterparts among
various characters to figures out of European poetry and myth, including
the physical descent into the underworld of the sewers made by Stone
(“Dante”) in the final section of the novel.
Men Die is short, and works as both story and near-allegory, about racism and the arms race.
The story takes place during the build-up to an inevitable
war, when the US Navy assigns an all black crew to work under three
white officers on an insanely dangerous munitions base on a tiny
As with The Underground City, events in the book echo historical fact: see the 1944 Port Chicago
explosion and mutiny.
Celia McGee in The New York Times about Humes, his novels, and the film
Darren Carlaw on Doc's novels in the TLS (Times Literary Supplement)
download PDF of TLS article
Alan Cheuse, continued:
The Underground City appears deceptively at first look to be one of
those loose and baggy monsters of which Henry James complained, the
compactness of Men Die, published less than a year later, might give the
initial impression of simplistic story-telling about a complex period,
the months leading up to the US entry into the Pacific War.
The Underground City
seems almost wholly anomalous in its essence, a work that no other American writer tried to write before Humes...
unclear to me why neither of these novels is now in print, except that
perhaps when Humes himself went, in his own way, “underground,” there
was no one else partisan enough to lobby on behalf of further editions.
Taken together they not only give us a picture o the Cold War mentality
that augments the dramatic vision in Mailer’s Barbary Shore and Vance
Bourjaily’s Hound of the Earth, but show the hand of a writer whose
inventive projections and first-rate narratives deserve to see the light
of day again. The books are good enough to become part of the education
of all the good readers in the house.