The first review I ever read of "In The Wet" was less than glowing. It was written by an Englishman who didn't seem to like Nevil's prognostications on socialism, the superiority of Australia over England, and the future of the royal family. The reviewer opined that "In The Wet" was one of Nevil's lesser novels.
I beg to disagree.
Before going into the story line, I will list some of the themes that have made Nevil's books so popular. Some show up in all his novels; some in only a few. But only "In The Wet" includes every one.
Now back to "In The Wet":
The story begins with the Reverend Roger Hargreaves, a somewhat burnt out Anglican Priest in a large but rather neglected parish in the Outback of Australia. In describing his circumstances, the Reverend Hargreaves tells us that: By English standards, perhaps it isn't much of a parish but, by English standards, perhaps he isn't much of a priest. Like Keith Stewart in "Trustee", the Reverend Hargreaves is no one's idea of a hero. He is an ordinary man with whom no one would identify in a Walter Mitty daydream.
In the course of his duties, Roger Hargreaves becomes involved with "Pisspot Stevie", an aging, alcoholic/opium smoking, diseased, ex-pilot, ex-ringer, has-been, who is also no one's idea of a hero.
The story shifts as the Reverend Hargreaves sits the deathwatch with Stevie in a squalid cabin, in the wet - Stevie, whose mind is poisoned with disease and opium and Roger Hargreaves, whose fevered mind is deranged by a bout of malaria. Their minds, both in altered states, reach out to each other, and so unfolds the story of Stevie's next life. Stevie "dreams" of his life to come, and Roger "hears" his tale.
At this point there is an abrupt shift in the story as the scene is moved from Roger's deathwatch with Stevie, to a test flight somewhere in England, and sometime in the future. At first, the reader may be caught off guard. "Wait a minute! Wasn't I just in a cabin, in the wet, in Outback Australia ? !" However, it is easy to slip into the new storyline - the story of "Nigger Anderson".
Nigger is a quadroon, of mixed European and Aboriginal ancestry. He is a decorated member of the Royal Australian Air Force, and a first rate pilot, chosen by his country to be a member of an elite test pilot team in the UK . Nigger has come far since his birth as the son of a ringer and a half caste girl in the Outback, but more honors and advancement are in store. Shortly into the story, he is offered a position commanding one of two aircraft of the Queen's Flight.
The milieu in which the reader encounters Nigger is an England that remains technically superior, but that has been bled dry by socialism; an England in which the royal family is both revered, and abused - revered by the common people, and abused by politicians who use them as whipping boys - for the economic woes of England. When the politicians attempt to control the foreign travel of the monarch by curtailing her use of government aircraft, the Canadian and Australian governments each donate a modern jet transport to the Queen's Flight, provide for operating expenses, and furnish crews. Nigger is chosen as the captain of the Australian plane.
It is through his duties with the Queen's Flight that Nigger meets Rosemary, a minor secretary with the royal household. They are brought together by their love of sailing and their work, and they inevitably fall in love, the lily white daughter of a renowned dean in the British university system, and the son of a ringer and a half caste. Their love story progresses apace with the flying adventures of Nigger and his crew.
An interesting subplot developed along the way has to do with a multiple voting system that has been developed in Australia and that is being mentioned for use in England. The system provides that voters who accomplish more, and contribute more to their country, have an increased voice in the government based on an increased number of votes. This is the system that "made Australia what it was" and offers hope for the political and economic salvation in England. However, it is a system bitterly opposed by the existing Labor government, whose representatives have been elected by the one man - one vote system.
As the tale approaches its climax, Nigger is flying the Queen and her party to Australia, when his quarter aboriginal self senses something very wrong. A bomb has been hidden aboard the plane and Nigger, alone among the crew, senses the danger. He finds the bomb, and handles the plane in a way that the bomb can be safely jettisoned. Nigger goes on to fly the royal party to Australia, and the story concludes as the political crisis draws to an end; England decides to opt for a "more advanced" form of democracy; and Nigger and Rosemary begin to plan for their future together.
In an epilogue, the reader returns to the Outback cabin where Stevie has died, and where Roger Hargreaves sits exhausted, trying to sort dream from reality. Later, as he attempts to locate Stevie's next of kin, Roger discovers more and more that lends credence to the dream. In the end, he wonders if God has not "lifted a corner of the veil" for him, and if "The Kingdom of Heaven is here within us now, for those who have gone before."
To some readers, Nevil's politics may seem elitist, his religious views extreme, his racial concepts unacceptable; his treatment of Rosemary sexist; and his "happy ever after" ending contrived.
To me though, "In The Wet" is the ultimate Nevil Shute novel.
I love it.