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The Typist

The Typist

by Michael Knight

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An American soldier works in post-surrender Japan in a novel “reminiscent of The English Patient . . . sad, wistful and romantic” (Los Angeles Times).
When Francis Vancleave joins the army in 1944, he expects his term of service to pass uneventfully. His singular talent—typing ninety-five words a minute—keeps him off the battlefield and in General MacArthur’s busy Tokyo headquarters, where his days are filled with paperwork in triplicate and letters of dictation.
But little does Van know that the first year of the occupation will prove far more volatile for him than for the US Army. When he’s bunked with a troubled combat veteran marketer and recruited to babysit MacArthur’s eight-year-old son, Van is suddenly tangled in the complex—and risky—personal lives of his compatriots. As he brushes shoulders with panpan girls and Communists on the streets of Tokyo, Van struggles to uphold his convictions in the face of unexpected conflict—especially the startling news from his war bride, a revelation that threatens Van with a kind of war wound he never anticipated.
“Tells the story of generals, war, and occupation through the eyes of a typist who proves himself to be the calm at the center of the storm . . . [An] elegant, thoughtful, and resonant novel.” —Ann Patchett
“A memorable read.” —Chicago Tribune

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780802197061
Publisher: Grove/Atlantic, Inc.
Publication date: 08/03/2010
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 208
Sales rank: 904,862
File size: 2 MB

About the Author

Michael Knight is also the author of the novel, The Divining Rod; two collections of short fiction, Dogfight: And Other Stories and Goodnight, Nobody; and a collection of novellas, The Holiday Season. His fiction has appeared in publications such as Esquire, The New Yorker, and Oxford American. He teaches creative writing at the University of Tennessee.

Read an Excerpt


After Pearl Harbor, my father was gone more often than he was home, piloting his tugboat from Mobile, Alabama, where we lived, to factories as far away as Louisville and Kansas City, barges riding low in the water from the weight of materials for the war effort. He'd been too young for the first war and now he was too old, but I was proud of him just the same.

For her part, my mother never seemed to mind the erratic schedule or to resent the other wives in our neighborhood, the ones whose husbands came home each night in time for supper, and though I admired my father very much, though I wanted to pilot a tugboat of my own one day, I minded on her behalf. When he wasn't on the water, my mother fussed over him, cobbling his favorite meals together, despite the rations, rubbing his feet while he read the paper, wearing her hair the way he liked, pressing a finger to her lips to make sure I didn't wake him in the morning. Then, in what seemed no time at all, my father would pack his grip and vanish from our lives again, the only proof of his existence dry whiskers in the sink and an extra pillow on my mother's bed.

My mother had been a secretary before she married, and during the war, she took piecemeal work for extra money, mostly papers for students at the Jesuit college in our town. Nights, she'd set her typewriter, a 1938 Corona Portable, on the kitchen table after dinner, and I'd linger over the dishes as a pretext to watch her. My mother was pretty all the time but her face in concentration was mesmerizing, lips pursed, eyebrows knitted. Her fingers flashed over the keys. It was my mother who taught me how to type. The trick, she told me, was to forget about your hands. I allowed these lessons only on nights when my father was away. She gave me scripture to practice on. Blessed are the poor of spirit and For now we see through a glass darkly and so forth. She was not an overtly religious woman — I never saw her cross herself outside of mass — but we attended services every Sunday, sometimes with my father, sometimes not, depending on his work schedule and his mood, and though I quit church in the army, I never did manage to shake what I would call a spiritual inclination.

Every so often, when my father was gone and my mother was lonely and sleep eluded her, she'd slip down the hall to my room and ask me to scoot over on my bed. I'd sigh and grumble out of a kind of teenage sense of obligation, but the truth is I didn't mind. She'd curl up with her chest against my back, her knees in the crooks of mine, her hands pressed together, as if in prayer, between my shoulders.

Our secrets: my typing lessons and her nights in my bed.

Looked back on, those days seem happy enough, all things considered. I had plenty of friends and I chased my share of girls without success. Before the war, the biggest thing to happen in my life was when Alabama whipped Stanford in the Rose Bowl. That was part of the problem, I suppose. I enlisted three days after graduation. Did my basic at Fort Benning. Got married two weeks before I shipped overseas. She was seventeen years old, one of those girls who made bandages for the Red Cross and danced with soldiers at the USO, and I was one of those soldiers headed off to war. Near the end of basic training, an assignments officer asked if I had any special talents. At first I could think of nothing, and we just kept looking at each other. Finally, I remembered I could type. I shipped out eighteen months before we dropped the bomb, my life so far receding, my life to come spreading out before me big as the ocean. I was attached to the Officers Personnel Section, a sort of military secretarial pool, of General MacArthur's headquarters, first in Brisbane, then Manila. In September 1945, a month after the surrender, the whole operation was relocated to Tokyo, where the story that I want to tell begins.


The Imperial Finance Ministry was converted into barracks for obvious reasons: it was big enough to serve the purpose, it had survived the bombing intact, and it was one of the few remaining buildings in Tokyo where the steam heat still worked. Billets were divided between general operations personnel, typists like myself, cooks, mechanics, and so on, and members of MacArthur's Honor Guard. By an accident of mathematics — an odd number of troops assigned to the clerical staff — I was bunked with an Honor Guard corporal named Clifford Price.

The Honor Guard was mustered before we left Manila. General MacArthur issued a directive to the commanders of all the combat divisions in the Pacific; I typed the orders up myself. Each division was to supply ten "distinguished" soldiers for reassignment to the Philippines, where they would serve as a personal escort for MacArthur and visiting dignitaries and the like. The criteria were strict: All members of the Honor Guard must have scored 110 or better on the General Classifications Test, must have a "sterling" combat service record, must be of "exemplary physique" and between five feet ten and six feet two inches tall. This last was so all their heads would be at more or less the same level on parade.

Honor Guard Company was among the first to enter Japan, so Clifford had moved into our room a week before I arrived. I found him sitting on the foot of his bed, right leg crossed over left, paring his toenails with a pocketknife. The room was neat enough and the walls were bare but already the room felt lived in, Clifford's watch and loose change on the desk, his odor in the air — feet and laundry and a powdery smell I couldn't name. Toenail trimmings on the floor. He took me in, then returned his attention to his foot.

"What's in the case?" he said.

Beyond the window, the world was dim with evening and I'd been on one plane or another since dawn and my ears were ringing and my mind was wiped blank from the shuffle and disorder of relocation. I'd forgotten that I was clutching a typewriter, still in its cardboard case, against my chest as if I intended to use it to keep my new roommate at bay. My CO, Captain Embry, had told me to leave the typewriter in Manila, said the army would have a new one waiting for me in Japan, but it was the most beautiful piece of machinery I'd ever seen, a 1942 Royal Super Speed, so black it negated light, round silver keys rising from the space bar in four tiers, 48 tiny platters perched on the fingertips of 48 tiny butlers, each letter offered up like something rare. Because I was good at my job, I'd been granted permission to keep the Super Speed in my quarters. I hoped, secretly, to take it with me when I shipped home.

"Typewriter," I said.

"You think you could do a letter for me?" Clifford said. "My mother always bitches that my handwriting is a mess."

"All right," I said.

"I told her if she kept complaining I'd quit writing period, but she knows it's a bluff. Bunny makes us write home once a week."

Bunny was my personal favorite among the nicknames the men had for MacArthur. I liked its obscurity — in two years under his command I'd never been able to find a single soldier who could explain its origins — and its versatility. It could serve as a term of affection or admiration or derision, with only the slightest variation in context and tone of voice.

I moved to set the Super Speed on what would be my bed but Clifford hopped up before I could and swiped his things off the desk.

"Put it here," he said, and so I did.

He dragged a footlocker out from under his bed, removed a notepad from atop a stack of neatly folded undershirts. He flipped pages until he found what he was looking for.

"He makes you write?" I said.

Clifford nodded. "To set an example for the regular army slobs. No offense. It's not bad. Bunny jumps us through a lot of hoops, but I was attached to First Cavalry before I got recommended. This is better by a longshot."

He handed me the pad, tapped the page.

"Can I type it later?" I said. "I'm beat."

"Sure," he said. "Whenever. As long as it's ready for the mail by Friday." He sat on his bed to sprinkle his feet with powder from a tube printed with Japanese letters.

"You play Ping-Pong?" he said. "They got tables downstairs."

He pulled on his socks and shoes.

"I'm beat," I said again.

"What's your name?"

I told him and he told me his and we shook hands.

When he turned to leave, I said, "You mind cleaning up your toenails before you go?" He stared at me for a second, then smiled in a way that made me wish I hadn't asked, policed his nail trimmings, stowed them in his breast pocket, and left me in possession of the room. For a minute, I just stood there, embarrassed, disoriented. Eventually, I made my bed and unpacked my duffel. At the bottom, tucked into a pair of blue civilian socks, was my wedding band. I'd quit wearing it my first week on active duty. I buried the socks at the bottom of my footlocker and stretched out atop the blankets on my bed. Without meaning to, I dozed off, woke up hungry a few hours later to the sound of Clifford snoring and, behind that, faintly, the patter of light rain.

Those first few months in Japan were my favorite of the war. There was plenty to be done, of course, especially for a typist, more work in some ways in the management of peace than in the prosecution of hostilities, but a shadow had lifted clear. I'll admit that I was fond of army life from the beginning, its regularity and routine, its absolute remove from the life I'd left behind. In Australia and then the Philippines, after Bunny retook Bataan, I'd abandoned myself to the steady, useful progress of the days, but always the possibility existed that something awful would pass across my desk. Even the good news — another island liberated, a successful bombing raid — was tinged with death. Now all that was over with. Bunny made it clear from the beginning that the Japanese were to be treated with respect, that it was their job to rebuild the country, not ours, that we were here to help, when help was wanted, and when it wasn't, we were to stay out of the way. Despite all the military trappings, we were basically spectators, civilians in army dress, watching while a nation reinvented itself according to Bunny's imagination.

Each morning, I woke at 0700, made my bed, showered, shaved, downed a cup of coffee and crossed Hibiya Park on foot to the Dai Ichi Sogo building, nodding at the locals and saluting as necessary to passing officers. My route took me alongside the Imperial Palace moat. Swans, pale as ghosts, gliding on the water. A pretty wooden bridge. A gatehouse and a stone wall on the other side. You couldn't see the palace itself. The grounds were too extensive, acres and acres of landscaping right in the middle of downtown Tokyo. The only people allowed across the moat were the Emperor and his staff. Even Bunny sent messages via special envoy. He could have changed the rules, but he believed that if he wanted to win over the locals it was important to treat their traditions and institutions with respect.

From 0800 to 1700, I typed whatever the brass needed me to type. The paperwork was endless, and I learned to type without reading at all, to let information pass directly from my eyes to my fingers without registering in my conscious mind, and this did wonders for my speed and precision. Now and then, especially if I was typing something from Bunny, a word or phrase caught my eye and I'd slow down enough to take in the meaning, but mostly I gave myself up to mindlessness. The act was a kind of self-hypnosis, I suppose. That's how it felt, anyhow. Most days, the hours passed in a tedious dream, and when the work was finished I could hardly remember a single thing that had crossed my desk. I strolled back through the park like a man who has just been roused from a slightly-too-long nap.

Walk a mile in any direction and you ran onto acres of devastation, heaps of rubble and rusted metal, old men and young boys sorting the debris for whatever might be salvageable and loading the rest into trucks to be carted off who knows where. If the wind shifted just right, everything smelled like wet ash. After our B-29s had taken care of all the industrial targets and still Japan had not surrendered, the air force ceased to discriminate, but by a stroke of pure good luck, the park and the financial district surrounding it, a few square miles altogether, were mostly spared. That's where we moved in — Little America, the locals called it. There was always a crowd gaping in through the windows of the PX at the shelves of canned goods and clothes and souvenir kimonos. "Demokrashi good," they'd say, when you emerged. "Demokrashi OK." They'd laugh and tug at your sleeve, and maybe you'd let them have your loose change. It should have been a sad sight but there was no rancor in it, not from either side. I felt decent and important and part of something bigger than myself. Bunny had set the tone. We weren't conquering these people, we were liberating them from centuries of tyranny. All of us were dimly aware that there were families living under railroad trestles somewhere in the city and that, because of food shortages, a letter from Bunny himself demanding that the War Department "send me more bread or send me more bullets" had passed through the Officers Personnel Section, but none of that was our fault, the way we saw it, and it was hard to keep those things in mind at all when Emperor Hirohito was posing for photos in Bunny's living room and the cherry trees in Hibiya Park looked exactly as they must have looked before the war and Little America was strung with Christmas lights in December and there were wreaths on all the lampposts and even the local entrepreneurs were selling holiday cards, woodcut prints of snowy mountains and brushy pines, the scenes beautiful and quiet, austere by comparison to the cards you bought back home.

* * *

A story went around not long after we got settled in. Apparently, Bunny was on his way home from the office one night when he spotted a GI in an alley getting a handjob from a panpan girl. "You see that?" he said. "They keep trying to get me to put a stop to all this Madam Butterflying around, but I won't do it. My father told me never give an order unless I was certain it would be carried out." Clifford claimed to have the details direct from Bunny's driver. I don't know if the story or its source is true, but I know Clifford took it to heart. During the day he escorted Bunny from his quarters at the embassy to his office in the Dai Ichi Sogo building — just two floors up from mine — or he stood guard outside the building while Bunny was at work, or he paraded with the rest of the Honor Guard for visiting heads of state, but after hours he devoted himself to getting laid.

Not a particularly challenging endeavor. With the financial backing of what was left of the government, a group of Japanese businessmen calling themselves the Recreation and Amusement Association hired thousands of young women to provide "comfort" for the occupation forces. They issued a public statement, in English, within a week of our arrival: "We hope to promote mutual understanding between our conquerors and our people, to smooth the development of diplomacy and to abet the construction of a peaceful world." The whole business seemed remarkably open-minded and hospitable. Eventually, under pressure from Washington, Bunny nudged the Japs to outlaw state sponsored prostitution, but the ban didn't do much to slow the trade. Those girls had to make a living somehow, so they hired out to private houses or plied their wares in Ueno Station or in the Yurakucho district on the edge of downtown. It was so easy to get laid even Clifford got bored with hookers after a while.

He came into our room one night while I was knocking out a letter to my wife and flopped back on his bed. He didn't speak so I kept typing. I tried to write her once a month or so. Enough that I didn't feel guilty. After a few seconds, Clifford started sighing and cracking his knuckles loud enough for me to hear.

"What?" I said.


"You need me to type something?"

"No," he said.

I went back to my letter. I'd hardly typed three words before he interrupted.

"How come you never go to panpan girls?"

My fingers hung over the home row.

"I'm married," I said, without turning around.

The springs squeaked as Clifford sat up on his bed.

"You're shitting me?" he said. "But you don't wear a ring. Do you? I never seen one. And you don't have any pictures. Have you been hiding pictures of your girl?"

"That's my business."

"It's weird is what it is," he said. "Besides, I know lots of married guys who get a little something now and then. No harm in it. Nobody'll ever know."

I yanked the letter out, balled it up, and tossed it toward the wastebasket. Missed. Clifford picked it up and for an instant I was afraid he'd read what I had written, the usual catalog of weather and routine, but he just dropped it in.

"What do you do?" he said. "You jerk off? Are you in here jerking off all the time when I'm not looking? You better not be. If my feet start sticking to the floor, we're gonna have words."


Excerpted from "The Typist"
by .
Copyright © 2010 Michael Knight.
Excerpted by permission of Grove Atlantic, Inc..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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