The Drifters, by James Michener
In middle school, I was curious about the 1971 bestseller on my mother’s bookshelf, but Not a book for kids was I think how she announced the embargo on reading James A. Michener’s The Drifters. But the cover art of sexy college kids and chapter titles like “Monica,” “Britta,” and “Pamplona,” proved too difficult to resist, so I smuggled the paperback off the bookshelf and read it on the sly. The novel tells of six college-age internationals who meet in Spain, then travel to Portugal, Mozambique, and finally Morocco. It was summer, I was stuck at home, and those travels seemed impossibly exotic—as did the Michener’s characters. They worked for Eugene McCarthy, waitressed in Spanish bars, took LSD, slept on the beach, and said things like: “People who live in grass houses shouldn’t get stoned.”
And there’s plenty of era-specific monologues on rejecting mainstream standards and ambitions, delivered in the high-minded tone of the day:
“I can no longer take war or promotion or big income or a large house seriously. I reject empire and Vietnam and placing a man on the moon. I deny time payments and looking like the girl next door and church weddings and a great deal more. If you want to blame such rejection on grass, you can do so. I charge it to awakening.”
This sybaritic and free-form world, enabled by a privilege that at the time was taken for granted, fueled my unrealistic ideas about what it meant to come of age. Meanwhile, the novel’s larger political and social concerns were simply daunting. I skipped over the long descriptions of politics, war, and the frictions of a divided society, all the better to get back to Britta, wading into the Mediterranean with a Gauloise in one hand, a perfect embodiment of my inexperienced view of the future.