I have always rather liked Nevil Shute. This is my least favorite of the dozen or so books of his that I've read. Part of it is the weird polemics. Part of it is the clumsy way Shute went back and forth between the two, intertwined story lines.
So, we begin with a 60-something Church of England clergyman, Roger Hargreaves, in Northeastern Australia, Queensland. Hargreaves served a large parish, in terms of area, many square miles. They have two seasons there, wet and dry. "In the wet", travel is very difficult.
Well, Hargreaves meets up with an old drunk, Stevie. Stevie varies his time living with a Chinese guy (Liang Shih) who grows vegetables and opium, or living in town, cadging free drinks. Stevie had once been a pilot in the Royal Flying Corps, and had later managed a "station" (Australian ranch).
Time goes on. One day, Liang Shih comes into town to tell the local medical person, Sister Finlay, that Stevie is very sick. Hargreaves and the Sister head out to check up on Stevie. It's just become rainy season, and the travel is difficult. Eventually they make it. To ease Stevie's pain, Liang Shih gives him some opium. Hargreaves sits by the bedside, hoping to comfort the sick, probably dying, man. He is hoping to help him ease his way into the "next world". Eventually, Hargreaves gets Stevie talking about his past and any possible relatives he might have. Stevie says his actual name is David Anderson, but his mates all call him Nigger. Stevie says he's married to a woman named Rosemary and has two children. He claims to have flown the queen around here and there.
Next thing one knows, the focus of the story has changed. Rather abruptly. No warning. No transition. Not even a gap in the printing or a new chapter. We've leapt from Australia in 1953 to England in 1983. Eventually, toward the end of the book, we leap back, and it all makes some kind of sense. In the meantime, we're invited to Shute's diatribes against socialism, the national health service, the one-man-one-vote model for democracy, and so forth. Much of the book does read like classic Shute with airplanes and boats woven in, a shy friendship between an man and a woman that leads to romance, and so forth.
Overall, it's a decent enough book, but the polemic nature of Shute's stunted politics gets wearying, and as I said, the clumsy transition between 1953 and 1983 and back is very disorienting.