Some Came Running.
by James Jones.
Scribner’s. 1266 pp. $7.50.
James Jones’s second novel is located in a mythical town in Illinois called Parkman. It is an attempt to interpret the lives of its representative citizens, the bums, lushes, and whores who inhabit its bars, the Rotarians who run its stores and banks, and the literati who preside over its intellectual life. Almost everybody is viewed through the central consciousness of Dave Hirsh, a writer who returns home after World War II and spends the four years covered by the novel striving both to write his great novel and find his great romance. Dave Hirsh and Parkman are in continual conflict and the book documents the hero’s futile attempts to preserve his integrity and talents in a world largely alien and stupefying. Before being murdered by a madman, he comes to understand that the responsibilities of love and of the family corrode talent and that the writer must stubbornly refuse to participate in the conventional life of his culture. The book emphasizes, more openly than From Here to Eternity, Jones’s central theme, that the only cause worth living and dying for is self-realization.
There is in Some Came Running the heavy drinking, brawling, and fornicating among the hangers-on at Smitty’s bar that one found among the soldiers in the barracks at Schofield. Violence and drunkenness, though often used melodramatically, are sometimes for Jones a rich comic source—Some Came Running is proof that this source has not dried up. Two drunken brothers argue across a table about whether war is happy or sad and then beat each other to a pulp over the question; a sodden gladiator rises unsteadily to his feet and starts to explode over the tables, chairs, and glasses; two giant Southerners engage in hand to hand combat and then, after the walls shake, the floor quakes, the blood flows, and the bones break, shake hands and warmly re-establish their friendship. In scenes like this, mayhem achieves epic proportions which call to mind the roaring Boosters of the pioneer myth like Mike Fink and Roaring Ralph Stackpole. We believe in the physical prowess and the capacity for drinking and sex of Jones’s characters just about as much as we believe that the ringtail roarer, “sockdoggling” Davy Crockett, broke three of his ribs, knocked out five of his teeth, and gouged out one of his eyes during their “riproarious fight on the Mississippi.” They are all part of an ingratiating tall tale to which the reader willingly gives half assent.
It is a little disconcerting, therefore, to discover that Jones not only wants us to believe in these primitive wildmen but to see their lives as a noble alternative to the world of respectability. “The only way you could say it . . . was that the life they lived still had fist fights in it. . . . Every town had a group like that, living on the fringes, always within the law, always strictly within the law, not criminal, but at the same time not respectable. A little wild. It always did attract him. Probably mainly because the respectables always bored hell out of you, with their lies about themselves they’d convinced themselves of finally.” The drunkards of Smitty’s Bar bear a heavy burden in this book. In an America yielding to hypocrisy and decay, they are the last frontier of energy and honesty. It is clear that if Jones ever knew these people (and From Here to Eternity would indicate that he once knew them very well) he is now beginning to see them through a romantic haze. They have all become figures in his own recently constructed mythology of rebellion. It is no accident that the hero often thinks of these primitives as material for literature: “What a book these characters would make some day.” They are no longer individuals but “characters” with an exemplary role to fill.
Some Came Running is the book Dave talks about, and it is a very bad book indeed, selfconscious, discursive, ineptly plotted, and clumsily written. Much of the book’s shortcomings are the direct result of the quality of thought found among its pages. The reader is battered into helpless insensibility by Jones’s analyses, explanations, theories, and opinions. The event exists to be universalized, the experience to be transmuted into a rigid philosophy of life. And what is the insight that explains the motions of the universe? Here it is: “It was really all only sex. All. Everything. The game and the profession of the universe. Money was made, and music written, books were written, statues, poems, governments fell. All. All for sex. Love me, love my horse.” And the novel proves it. The hero makes a crucial decision to remain in Parkman and invest all his money in a business he despises because he wants to seduce the heroine; the heroine repulses the hero’s advances because she is ashamed to admit she is still a virgin at thirty-seven; the hypocrisy of Parkman’s upper class is exposed by wearying descriptions of their sexual peccadillos; even the act of writing itself is described as sex exhibitionism “like the man on the street who is under a compulsion to take his genitals out and show them to people.”
This, of course, is the conception of the warm-blooded adolescent, so pulsing with sexual juice that all the world seems explained by his own desire. And much of Some Came Running reads like an elaborate adolescent romance. The reader is subjected to a series of solemn debates—which girls do and which girls don’t and whether or not they like it, what their individual performances are like, what techniques should be used in seducing them—which reminds one of nothing so much as the high school locker room.
The hero, though he is thirty-seven when the novel begins, has the emotional responses of a child. Like a child, he sees himself as something special. Like a child, he feels that something beyond his control is preventing him from showing this to the world. The Gift and the Obstacle have appeared in Jones’s work before. Prewitt, we will remember, was restrained from bugling by army officers who wanted him to fight in the ring. In this book, Dave is restrained from writing by his own need for sex, love, and affection. “If only a few of them would understand. If only one would! Well, write the book; make them understand. But understand what? Me! That’s what! Dave Hirsh! Me, Dave Hirsh, that’s what! To understand Dave Hirsh is to love him. What great brain once said that? Was it Einstein? Must have been. In love. In love. And at his age, too. Was he a punk? Was he a child? Apparently.” Dave Hirsh’s last insight is correct. This prose, with its plea for the world’s understanding, is the prose of the will-less juvenile trying to urge himself to independent action. The novel is a document of Hirsh’s failure—instead of action, the plot is moved by misunderstandings and misconceptions. Things happen to Dave Hirsh; he is a hapless victim of circumstance, petulantly kicking against the pricks. While Prewitt’s death resulted from his wilful refusal to compromise with the System, Dave Hirsh merely endures and dies gratuitously, for no reason at all. Despite Jones’s efforts to relate Dave’s passiveness to his artist’s nature (“an outsider . . . doomed forever not to partake, only observe”), the hero emerges as helpless, irresponsible, and undisciplined, a frightened child in the world of men.
Consequently, it becomes difficult for the reader to take Jones’s indictment of Parkman society seriously. Parkman’s great sin is said to be hypocrisy, but more often it seems to be a refusal to take notice of Dave Hirsh when he cries for attention, like a parent’s indifference to a son’s great gifts. This is borne out by the fact that Dave stands in a filial relation to those few people who do give him attention and who do acknowledge his talent. The most ingratiating of these is ‘Bama Dillert, an unregenerate professional gambler who cares tenderly for the hero after each of his collisions with life. ‘Bama is very similar to Sergeant Warden of From Here to Eternity except that his affection for the hero is no longer disguised under a cloak of gruff indifference. Like Warden, ‘Bama is characterized by his leadership, his unerring wisdom about human events, and the accuracy and grace with which he performs common tasks. In his relation to the hero, ‘Bama seems more like father than friend. He represents the successful attainment of the hero’s ideal, the rebel whose confidence and ability enable him to survive in the hostile world of men. He is an idealized father, possessing the parent’s strength and surety without the parent’s commitment to society.
Dave has two other parent figures—Bob and Gwen French, a father and daughter who are the leaders of Parkman’s intellectual life. ‘Bama and his cohorts at Smitty’s bar represent the truancy for which every adolescent rebel yearns; the Frenches represent the life of domestic stability, free from bourgeois complacency and hypocrisy, but nevertheless containing the security that the child finds at home. “He could not escape the sudden feeling that here suddenly for the first time in his life of thirty-seven years he had walked into a place that was safe. . . . God! to find a place like this in Parkman, Illinois. God, to find hips like this in Parkman, Illinois.” Gwen French’s hips (as we might expect considering her parental role) remain inaccessible to Dave Hirsh, but her advice does not. It is she who encourages him to return to writing, who gives his work direction, who finally gets it published, and who supplies him with most of his vapid literary theories. It is her father (a Midwestern poet who uses such expressions as “cad” and “rotter”) who consoles him with Hindu philosophy when his love seems impossible. Gwen French, with her literary theories, and Bob French, with his Karma and occult studies, are probably the most frightful characters to appear in recent fiction.
The strong parental figures in Dave Hirsh’s life nevertheless indicate that behind his rebellious nature and his hatred of respectability lies a blind worship of authority. While having the illusion of freedom and individualism, he has merely exchanged one orthodoxy for another. From Here to Eternity was both moving and comic because of the herculean efforts of its hero to fight the System; Some Came Running fails because the hero’s resistance to the system has now been elevated into a philosophical principle. Jones’s new determination to lay down doctrine is doubtless due to his inflated sense of his role as a novelist, a result of his first success. It is refreshing, at a time when mind has been banished from most literature, to find a novelist who is so respectful of intellect—but it forces us to evaluate Jones on the quality of his thought. That quality is not so much inferior as underdeveloped; we could take Jones’s criticisms of life much more seriously if we could feel they were based on a mature understanding of life. As it is, Some Came Running emerges as a kind of tardy Bildungsroman in which the hero learns at forty-one what made Stephen Daedalus so unloved and unloving at twenty-one. It is evidence that, in a culture which deifies the adolescent, the emotional education of the individual is taking longer and longer to pursue.