H. L. Humes
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". . . brilliant. . ."
The tragic consequences of war and love are timeless themes. This is demonstrated in H. L. Humes’ 1959 tightly composed novel Men Die. Set on a Caribbean island just before World War II, three U.S. Naval officers are assigned to build ammunition storage tunnels into Manacle Shoal Rock.
This brilliant story begins with a massive explosion on the island. The only survivors are Lt. Everett Sulgrave and six mutineers. The rich narrative, which alternates between the past and the present, is presented in numerous segments; some only a paragraph long while others are written in free form-poetry that suggest spontaneous emotional thoughts.
When Sulgrave arrives on the island, the pessimistic Lt. Benjamin Dolfus declares the place doomed and points out, “Everything on this rock is black except you, me, and Admiral God,” a reference not only to the volcanic coloring but also to the exclusively all-black workforce. Commander Severn Hake dislikes African-Americans and is angry the military has assigned him an impossible task: The ammunition arrives faster than the laborers could build the storage tunnels.
In the back story, Sulgrave meets Hake’s wife at the funeral. She admits having an affair with Dolfus and falls in love with the much younger Sulgrave, who returns her affection.
Humes’ narrative shows his distrust of the military and his compassion for those trapped in the military mission. This is no surprise since Humes was a radical peace- loving dissident and part of the counterculture of the 1960s, paranoid that he was under CIA surveillance. His fears were justified when his friend and colleague Peter Matthiessen admitted using The Paris Review (founded by Humes) as his CIA cover.
There are conflicting stories on Humes' death at the age of 66 in 1992. A February 17, 2008, New York Times essay says Humes died on the streets of Massachusetts, his mind “not yet destroyed by mental illness.” A film documentary produced by his daughter claims Humes died of cancer in a New York City hospice.
Reviewer: Kate Padilla