The Slot

Author: John Clagett
PUBLISHER: Authors Guild
NOTES: A forgotten classic

It's a shame that once-popular books simply drop out of print, but it's a joy when one of them finds a new publisher. That's the case with The Slot, a novel about a young lieutenant who commands a PT boat during the fierce contests in Ironbottom Sound during the latter stages of the Guadalcanal campaign. The Authors' Guild republished it in the year 2000. Thanks to their print-on-demand service, you can pick up a new copy quickly at Amazon. I recommend it.

The Slot concerns more than fighting. Clagett's novel takes more than half its length to get us to the first skirmishes with the Tokyo Express, but along the way we get the sort of dramatic--some might say melodramatic--backstory of young men going to war. The Stateside plot shows our protagonist, Charles Noble, having a clandestine affair with his Commander's mistreated and lonely wife Kathleen. Her husband, Commander Daggs, is not the sort of man you'd want to lead you in battle, either. As the battles draw nearer, we get a sense here of the stress on military spouses and the way that a lot of prewar morals fell by the wayside among men who figured they might never come home again.

Clagett's minor characters are well drawn, though his women do reflect his era's stereotypes that we'd find ridiculous today: beauties who seem intent only about going out dancing, making love, and cooking. Once at sea, however, the book really rewards a contemporary reader, and the author is not afraid to "kill his darlings." That can be hard when you like a character, and I won't give spoilers but be ready for surprises.

The prose proves vivid, especially as the author describes the Solomons or the journey there. I ready a nautical book every summer and this was my pick. A passage like this, as the tanker carrying a squadron of PTs enters the Pacific from the Panama Canal, is worth the price of admission:

"The Pacific swells were high but far apart, and as regular as a vastly slowed metronome. Their long crests reached for miles on either hand, suggesting the vast spaces, empty even of islands, across which they had gathered strength. Over all was the deep sky, the heat of the sun, and the wild and lonely wind."

That sort of prose draws me to my annual reading of a nautical book. This level of description extends to the natural beauty of the skies, sea, and jungle in the Solomons, at least were war has not spoiled them. In terms of naval combat, the book is less poetic than vicious, depicting night actions with great detail and energy. Think of a knife-fight in a dark alley, with lots of feints, close calls, then sudden violence that stuns an observer. The poor quality of American torpedoes and the skill of the Imperial Japanese Navy at night actions get their due. Descriptions of equipment and tactics appear precise without bogging down the story, propelled by a sense of uncertainty and a feeling of being present as the war see-saws back and forth following Midway.

Today we think of the loss of four Japanese fleet carriers as ending things, but in the Solomons, Japan still had momentum for a short time and her navy there was seasoned and aggressive. Ultimately, Japan could not win such a war of attrition against the US, but to the combatants on both sides at Guadalcanal, their war was small and personal, with sudden or lingering death ever present.

Clagett knew this setting, firsthand. He commanded PT 111 during the campaign until it sank in a night action; two of his men died, one was a young man from Yale, Philip Alvan Shribman, who may have been the model for one of Noble's crew. The author himself later received a PhD from Yale, likely deepening his regrets about the young talented man lost in the Solomons. Recently The Atlantic published a letter by Shribman, which is how I discovered The Slot.

Otherwise, Clagett says in an afterword that he deliberately avoided such borrowing from real life, and Commander Daggs was invented from whole cloth to give the story dramatic tension "more personalized than the enemy met in darkness." He thus avoided the anger from old comrades that haunted James Jones, the author of From Here to Eternity. Like that book and Norman Mailer's The Naked and the Dead, we have in The Slot a key work of fiction about The Pacific War. My only regrets involve the book not describing in any detail more about the operations, in particular the taking of Japanese prisoners after the book's PT, "Old 79," sinks an enemy vessel. While I didn't mind the romances that frame going to war, I'd have liked more details about life in the Solomons during the fighting from someone who knew Guadalcanal and Tulagi well.

Why Clagett's novel, as well as others he wrote, have been largely forgotten remains a mystery. He had the chops as a novelist, and he lived until 2013. His other two Pacific novels, the postwar sequel to this book called Papa Tango, and Typhoon 1944 wait for future summers. Those seem harder to score used. These books' fates should remind us that all things, even good stories, must pass. So do yourself a favor and get a copy of The Slot. I finished my copy in two sittings.

Joe Essid

April 2023

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