The Secret, by James Drought

February 4th, 2009

Cover of Avon paperback edition of 'The Secret' by James DroughtI was intrigued when I can across The Secret in the stacks of a used book store in Seattle. “At long last, something real on the American literary scene; very powerful,” Paul Pickrel of the Yale Review was quoted on the bright yellow cover. “The only trouble with The Secret is that it makes me feel inferior,” it also quoted from a review by Paul Jennings in the Observer.

Now, I’ve spent many hours scanning through shelves of used paperbacks, so it’s not too often now that I come across something truly new and unknown to me. Naturally, my eyes pricked up at this sight and I bought the book. When I sat down to read it for the first time, however, I quickly grew tired of it and set it aside. That bold banana yellow jacket kept catching my eye, though, and finally this week I sat down and dedicated myself to a discovery of Mr. Drought’s genius.

It was dedication alone that stayed my hand the dozen or more times in the last few days that I felt like hurling this book across the room. This is not a novel. Mr. Drought himself referred it The Secret as an “oratorio.” “Screed” is probably a more accurate term.

If Mr. Drought possessed any genius in this book, it’s of the ilk of that of Dr. Gene Scott or Joe Pyne or the guys I used to run into on the 1AM bus home from downtown after working swings. Here, for example, is Drought’s take on youth’s first realization that success is not all it’s cracked up to be:

For the young, it is like seeing a lovely lady, refined by a fine family, slip out one night in all her silk finery and walk into a woods erect and noble, where suddenly she crouches, rips a bird to pieces and eats it raw, shits in a hole and then kills another refined lady whom she meets at an appointed spot.

It’s that second killing I don’t get. OK, illusion of civilization revealed in its primal barbarity. I get that. But then killing a fellow refinee with whom she’s made a rendezvous? Survey a thousand kids a year out of high school and none of them will come up with that image.

The Secret loosely follows the lines of James Drought’s own life: raised on the outskirts of Chicago, a bit of a loner and rebel. An unsuccessful time in college, then a stint in the Army around the time of the Korean War as a paratrooper. Somewhere in between he meets and marries a beautiful, wonderful woman, and they raise a boy and a girl. He becomes a writer and eventually produces this book, which is intended to reveal to all American youth the secret that the world is out to kill you:

You have to conclude that your country has run amuck, that the people responsible are insane, that you can not trust your leaders, your President, your general, your parents, your friends, your neighbors, you co-workers, your police, your town, your state, your country, anymore because it is liable to turn upon you for no reason at all, except that for its own security it needs a scapegoat, any scapegoat including you, and there is no appeal possible.

The problem, you see, is that virtually everyone Drought’s nameless narrator meets is a shell, a stereotype, a craven one-dimensional drone:

Money was the king in those days; it was the goal for which people used up their lives, it was the prize by which they judged their accomplishments, the energy that made their institutions grown, it was the rationale, the reality, the ring of truth, the religion, it was the one single thing that everyone wanted, respected, cherished, needed, it was the spark, the spirit, the soul of an entire age in America and there was nothing else, no dream that could match it….

It goes on from there, but I’ll spare you the trouble.

Perhaps one of the reasons I found this relentless hammering away at the Great American Myths particularly tiresome was that Drought chose to make his narrator the most insufferably superior being to inhabit a book without the slightest redeeming scrap of humor. Early on, we learn that he and only he is the master marksman and hunter among his fellows:

I found most difficult the very idea I had to accept that my friends could not do these things well, and although I made many excuses for them, soon I had to cease blaming fate and put the blame on their clumsiness, and afterward I could do nothing but smile with boredom as they discussed their theories on how to fish, snare and trap, urging me to try some so they could see if any worked. I shot squirrels out of trees, and I had to admit I was a better shot, either because of a gifted eye, a steadier hand, a determination, or what, but more did fall to the ground, brother, when I shot than fell when my friends fired away hitting limbs, leaves and ticking distant houses, swearing that something was wrong with their goddamn sights, their sleeve caught, something was in their eyes, the gun was bent, etc. so I couldn’t ignore their clumsiness and my skill for long.

Which just goes to prove once more that the one downside to being better than everyone else is that it’s so tiresome having to put up with everyone else’s inferiority. The narrator goes on to tell us that there, along the deserted creeks outside Chicago, he caught or killed “catfish, possum, coon, trout,” “dove, pigeon, a buck, and once on a weekend a deer with arrows, and another time a bear with three arrows.” I can remember guys in junior high school telling whoppers like that. It was always those little details they’d chosen so carefully to impart that final pinch of verisimilitude that tipped you off that it was all a bunch of B.S.. “On a weekend.” “With arrows.” Yeah, right.

Ironically, The Secret proved to be a little American success story in itself, despite its message. Drought first published the book himself and sold it, along with several of his earlier novels, out of the back of his trunk. Eventually, Avon Books offered him a contract and released The Secret, as well as his earlier novels Mover, ii: A Duo, and The Gypsy Moths in paperback. The Gypsy Moths brought him greater fame, if still not much, due to the 1969 film version starring middle-aged Burt Lancaster as the hero and very young Gene Hackman as a sidekick.

Whatever else success did to Drought, it seems to have stilled his pen for a good ten years or more. Only in the late 1970s did he emerge into print again, with something called Superstar for president: An American satire–and on his own nickel once again. According to one biographical account, Drought was nominated by some European critics for the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1973. Now, according to the Nobel website, nominators can be any of:

  1. Members of the Swedish Academy and of other academies, institutions and societies which are similar to it in construction and purpose;
  2. Professors of literature and of linguistics at universities and university colleges;
  3. Previous Nobel Prize Laureates in Literature;
  4. Presidents of those societies of authors that are representative of the literary production in their respective countries.

My bet is on those wacky Académie française guys.

Should you care to sample Drought’s work despite the cruel drubbing I just gave it, you can find several of his works online and free to download, thank to the efforts of his children, who established drought.com a few years ago. You will find the texts of The Gypsy Moths (1955), Memories of a Humble Man (1957), Mover: a Modern Tragedy (1959), and, not least, The Secret (1962).


The Secret, by James Drought
Westport, Connecticut: Skylight Press, 1962
New York: Avon Books, 1963

3 Responses to “The Secret, by James Drought”

  1. Robert Nedelkoff Says:

    At the Drought site (www.drought.com/cwintro.doc) there’s an essay on this writer penned in ’66 by Colin Wilson, author of The Outsider and hundreds of other books (and almost the last living individual to figure in The Groucho Letters). Wilson has about as low an opinion of The Secret as expressed above, but argues the case for some of Drought’s other novels. Interestingly, he quotes from a review by Robert Lowry, whose “Casualty” is mentioned somewhere in NB.

  2. Kimmo Says:

    I recently found this on my bookshelf and started reading it…

    I think you missed the point of the civilised/savage allegory; it was in reference to the schizm between the reality of war and a facade of normality back home. The other fine lady represented another country at war.

    I suppose Drought was trying to point out the denial and projection inherent in society’s attitude to and justifications of war…

    He’s a bit clunky with his lack of self-consciousness, but he made a fair effort to muster something of a poetic flow in his prose, which generally serves his purpose well. Since I can identify somewhat with his perspective, I’m finding it reasonably enjoyable, and an interesting insight into the earlier days of a headspace I’ve inherited from the likes of Kurt Vonnegut, Bill Hicks, Mike Moore, et al.

  3. Longshort Says:

    I found The Secret at a funky used book store, and like author of this post, I was intrigued by the accolades.

    I think that it is quite likable, in a kind of Midwestern Catcher in the Rye sort of way.

    It is about a young kid who slowly finds that the adult world is empty, and he becomes disillusioned with bourgeois morality, religion, school, the military, etc. He describes it in a way that I can relate to, having grown up about twenty minutes from where he sets the book. I think it captures a certain angry-young-man flair. Sure, it needs editing, but the bad writing is part of the charm.

    The whole experience brought to mind the documentary The Stones of Summer, where a guy in middle age remembers a book that captivated him as a young man, then traces the author down to a small town in Iowa, where he is slightly crazy and not doing much.

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