Title: Goodbye, Mickey Mouse
Author: Len Deighton
Deighton, Len (1982, 2012). Goodbye, Mickey Mouse. New York: Sterling
Date Posted: November 6, 2015
Reviewed by Christopher Lehmann-Haupt
Len Deighton’s 14th novel, Goodbye, Mickey Mouse, tells, among other things, about what it was like to fly fighter planes over Germany during the last stages of World War II. In this respect the book is wonderfully harrowing, partly because Mr. Deighton seems to know about P-51 Mustangs the way the rest of us know about our bathroom scales and kitchen ranges, and partly because he has an almost uncanny ability to make war action in the air come visually alive.
Goodbye, Mickey Mouse is also about human relations in wartime—about intraservice rivalries, about conflicts between soldiers of different backgrounds and training, about friendships struggling to survive in the shadow of sudden death, and about the ambivalent feelings of the English people toward Americans who came to help fight the war and drink in their pubs and love their women. There is even a Jewish flier and, in the same outfit, a pilot of German extraction. Predictably, a certain amount of tension exists between them.
All of this Mr. Deighton handles credibly enough by the old fashioned method of inventing a richly complicated plot that illustrates all these points without degenerating into a slide lecture. And if the plotting is a shade too neat and contrived to lend support to the realism of the battle scenes, then you will simply have to excuse it on the grounds that it is fun and keeps the pot simmering, if not quite boiling over.
But what is most intriguing about Goodbye, Mickey Mouse is that it explores a profound but little noticed aspect of war—namely, the necessity it creates for parents to send their children off to death. That is what the novel’s title refers to, I believe. Literally, Goodbye, Mickey Mouse is what a dying pilot says at the end to one of his sidekicks, Lieut. Z.M. Morse, whose nickname happens to be Mickey Mouse. But it’s also an expression of farewell to childhood and its trivialities, as well as what a father or mother might say to a departing son. And this, at least for me, is what lifted Mr. Deighton’s novel above the merely entertaining.
Unfortunately, in order to show how Mr. Deighton elaborates this theme of generational conflict, I must make him sound a trifle heavy handed. The novel’s protagonist is a young American of good Eastern breeding named James A. Farebrother whose influential father feels compelled to tamper with his son’s career in order to avoid showing favoritism. Jamie falls in love with an Englishwoman named Victoria Cooper whose parents are mourning the wartime death of her younger brother, Nick, a rebel who joined the English merchant navy precisely because his parents disapproved of his going off to war.
Victoria’s father, Bernard Cooper, is a professor of psychology, and it is left to him to be the novel’s Greek chorus. While playing a round of golf with Jamie Farebrother’s father, Gen. Alexander Bohnen (Jamie’s mother divorced General Bohnen and married William Farebrother), Cooper observes: “All parents are tempted to destroy their own children, Bohnen. It’s a fact of life.” “After fifteen years or more of caring for a child, parents find it difficult to relinquish their role. There is temptation to cripple the child and thus keep the child dependent.”
Earlier, Cooper has reflected about General Bohnen: “Was there within him some deep-felt desire to sacrifice what he loved most—his son—upon the altar of war? And did the son, in some dreadful fashion, perceive it, as all sons instinctively share the mental state of their fathers? Bohnen loved his son, as every father must love his child, and the son could not respond with equal love, for that is the fundamental and tragic truth of human biology. For if children did love their parents with that same consuming passion, they would never leave home, and the world would end.”
If all this sounds a shade pedantic—and it does—then rest assured that elsewhere in the novel these themes are more subtly and effectively dramatized, and that they lend a special electricity to the story. There is even the pilot named Earl Koenige, who must recall to the reader’s mind Goethe’s poem “Der Erl Konig,” about a child whose father tries but fails to save him from death. This is the exactly opposite of the relationship between General Bohnen and Jamie.
Earl Koenige himself is killed on the way back from a bombing mission he had asked relief from because its objective was the German city from which his parents had emigrated to America. The irony here is far removed from Goethe’s poem, at least so far as I can recall it. As a whole, Mr. Deighton’s compelling story is equally far removed from the somewhat pedantic psychological musings that I have extracted and underlined.