Tuesday, August 24, 2010
When fame struck him like a sting ray, Max Miller was a lowly thirtysomething scribbler who'd toiled for more than half a decade in a decidedly unglamorous newspaper beat in a decidedly unglamorous port town.
Suddenly, the ocean-obsessed San Diego Sun reporter was the toast of the literary world. The New Yorker declared Miller's new book "thoroughly delightful," while the Los Angeles Times said it "has the touch of something dangerously like genius."
The title of Miller's 1932 book, "I Cover the Waterfront," may sound familiar. It inspired a pair of Hollywood movies (one starring Claudette Colbert) and became the title of a jazz standard sung by everyone from Billie Holliday to Frank Sinatra.
Miller is long gone, and so are the characters who populate the true-life vignettes in his book -- sea captains, Portuguese fishermen, flying squid, sparkling Garibaldi fish. Not to mention movie stars, Charles Lindbergh, Babe Ruth and a beautiful young woman who got away.
The book, however, is still around. It's in print and you can find it at the library and at used bookstores.
Does it still hold up? I decided to find out and cracked open a 1970s paperback edition of "I Cover the Waterfront," complete with an anachronistic painting of the bay and the County Administration Building (built in 1938, after the book came out) on the front and back covers.
Verdict: the book is indeed thoroughly delightful, blessed with an amazingly modern voice that leaps across the decades.
Miller grabs the reader from the start, musing about reporting on (and living at) the waterfront: "I have been here so long that even the sea gulls must recognize me. They must pass the word along about me from generation to generation, from egg to egg."
His college friends have gone on to high-paying jobs. But Miller is still here -- chasing ships and sailors, encountering sea animals from San Diego to Baja, and sitting through endlessly tedious newspaper staff meetings.
It's enough to make a man a bit cynical. And it does. But if the hooker with a heart of gold is the world's oldest stereotype, Miller fits the description of the second oldest: he's a crusty reporter but still a softie who cries in his beer. (Or near-beer. The book's events took place during Prohibition, after all.)
Miller sees the waterfront and its denizens through wry-colored glasses. There's the sniffly movie star, for instance, who drops by on an ocean liner to film a scene. She can't wipe her nose because it would mess up her makeup. "I cannot look at one of her pictures without remembering the hopelessness of this tragedy," Miller writes, tongue so far in cheek that he may have needed a physician to extricate it.
The best moments of the book go beyond gentle irony: they're starkly told tales of missed opportunities and tragedy.
In one vignette, Miller is assigned to tell a Navy sailor about a horrific tragedy involving his wife and two young children. Miller was told to break the news and watch, pencil and pad in hand, as shock crossed the man's face.
"I did not comprehend how I could be so indifferent, or how I could be thinking of my story as much as of him. I was preparing my interview ahead of time, and my face by now must be the face of a hard man. It must be hard, for I am hard. The test came and found me hard."
He tells the man about the death of his children at the hands of his wife: "I came down with the swatter."
Miller writes a story, it makes the front page, and his editor says it "showed the good old stuff" and had "all the good old sympathy guts to it that I want to see more of around here."
You can almost smell Miller's distaste and horror -- "Was my prisoner ready? … Let him have it. Let him have it now" -- mixed with the fascination he must have felt.
"I Cover the Waterfront" made Miller a star. He became a prolific author who wrote about the military, Southern California and Baja California. He lived in La Jolla with his wife and died in 1967.
The scrappy San Diego Sun vanished too, but not before producing a couple journalism legends. There was Miller, of course. And a reporter who won a Pulitzer in the 1920s for an engaging feature story about a solar eclipse. It turned out later that this journalist (dubbed a "polite con man" by a colleague) had fabricated the eclipse story and hadn't even left the office.
In contrast, Miller didn't need to embellish anything. He left the office every day to smell the salty air and to look, listen and understand.
Freelance writer Randy Dotinga is a book critic with The Christian Science Monitor and a regular contributor to voiceofsandiego.org. He lives in Normal Heights.