06 June 2011

A Fabulous Bachelor's Final Novel

The Sixth of June
Lionel Shapiro
New York: Doubleday, 1955

Time was that copies of The Sixth of June were pretty thick on the ground. I saw them at thrift stores, garage sales, church bazaars, and once scooped one up while shovelling the walk. This was in Montreal, Shapiro's hometown and mine, and yet I've never heard anyone mention the man or his novel. For a decade, Shapiro was amongst Canada's highest-earning writers – he probably led the pack – so why is it that his was not a household name? A 1955 Canadian Press story, published just as The Sixth of June landed in bookstores, reports:
This fabulous bachelor, who at 47 has produced three novels without a rejection, is known to few Canadians outside the newspaper field or show business. In Hollywood, which has bought two of his books and accounted for most of his earnings, he is a personal friend of stars and many producers.
The same article tells that his three novels, all published within the ten years that followed the end of the Second World War, grossed $350,000. The Sixth of June, the last of those three novels, was a Book-of-the-Month Club main selection – which explains all those copies I tripped over walking home from the Peel Pub.

A competent commercial novel, The Sixth of June was crafted from the author's experiences as a war correspondent. Its hero is Brad Parker, an energetic newspaperman from fictional Malton, Connecticut. Three years married to Jane when his country enters the war, Brad enlists and soon finds himself in London. Within days, the Nutmegger falls in love with crisp and prim Valerie Russell, who in turn is being politely pursued by Lt Col John Wynter. All resembles something of a soap opera, and amongst the sordid suds there is little stuff of substance. Social historians might find something in Shapiro's depiction of promiscuity in blitz-ravaged London. A few Canadian readers will be interested in the chapters dealing with Dieppe.

"Strictly experimental, just to find out if the Jerry is on his toes in the port areas," says Brad's commanding officer before the raid. "Between ourselves, Brad, I think it's murder."

The climax, as the title hints, takes place on the bloodied sands of Normandy, not in Brad Parker's bed. Shapiro, who was on Juno Beach that day, describes the action with a journalist's keen eye, then muddies things up with Brad's thoughts and speech.

"The greatest story of love and war since Hemingway's A Farewell to Arms", pitches the 1956 Bantam paperback. But Hemingway never wrote like this:
He thought, how wrong the English are about us. We Americans are the most disciplined people on earth. Especially this American. We got where we are because we're dumbly dedicated to home and career, to a routine that would drive us nuts unless, once in a lifetime, a war comes along and we can get up on our hind legs and holler and wear a holster low on the hip the way our grandfathers did and test whether we've still got the toughness they had. You, Val, were part of the process for Brad Parker, American, dumbly dedicated to wife, mother, and career, but it didn't turn out that way, not by a long shot. I'm in love with you and can't go on without you.
That is what he thought
Worse still is the dialogue, much of which reads like something from a bad movie. In this early snippet, Brad is accosted by a buddy at a New York night club:
"As I live and laugh," he whooped as he came up to their table, "it's the printer and his doll! H'ya doll!" He grabbed at Brad's hand and at the same time planted a kiss on Jane's cheek. "H'ya Brad! What the hell you doin' here? I figured you over with the Limeys helpin' Whoosenhauer or Ossenpoofer or whatever his name runs our show – and here you are livin' it up—"
Sure enough, the novel was made into a bad movie. Titled D-Day: The Sixth of June, it's remarkably faithful to the novel, and includes much of Shapiro's dialogue (though not the above). Screenwriters Ivan Mowat (Giant, Tender is the Night) and Harry Brown (Ocean's Eleven) deserve some credit in managing to cram 351 dense pages into 106 minutes.

The Sixth of June brought Shapiro a certain level of recognition. He followed former Soviet cipher clerk Igor Gouzenko in receiving a Governor General's Award, and made the news with a speech in which he credited Lester Pearson for having averted a third World War. But by this time, things were coming to a close for Shapiro. The author's bibliography ends with this book. A victim of cancer, he died at the Montreal General Hospital on 27 May 1958, mere months after his fiftieth birthday. His death was covered in the city's dailies.

Object: An extremely ugly hardcover. Printed on thin paper, the book is typical of Doubleday's cheap and nasty mid-20th-century productions.

Access: Predictably, the book has pretty much disappeared from our public libraries – look to the universities. Though long out of print, hundreds of copies in many different editions are listed online. Beginning at a dollar, all but a handful can be had for under US$20. At US$200, the most expensive is a signed first edition offered by a California bookseller. A fair price – out of all those copies I've seen through the years, not one has been signed.


  1. Back when "fabulous bachelor" wasn't a synonym for "gentleman of pleasure." Dusty Bookshelf unknowingly walked the surf line in Malibu that played Juno Beach in the -- excruciating -- movie. How cool is that?

  2. Walked? I stormed that beach - with the same determination that helped capture the Chateau in '84.