Throughout his career as a novelist, James Jones, who died last spring at the age of fifty-five, was a self-willed anachronism out of step with his literary generation. (Jones, Norman Mailer, Joseph Heller, and Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. were all born in the early 1920’s.) After 1945, when other ex-soldiers lusting for literary glory began spinning the ephemeral exploits of war into the relative permanence of fiction, Jones doggedly set out, in From Here to Eternity, to write not about combat but about the pre-war, peacetime Regular Army, which he had joined right after leaving high school in 1939. Not until 1962 did Jones get around to publishing The Thin Red Line, drawn from his combat experiences in a rifle company that fought on Guadalcanal and New Georgia.
Characteristically, Jones wrote The Thin Red Line oblivious to all the signs that the advance guard of intellectual opinion about war and venerable American ideals had begun to turn with radical hostility against the exultant mood of victory now more than fifteen years in the past. Only a year earlier, Joseph Heller, in Catch-22, had provided the decade with a startling new attitude toward the World War and all war. No longer proudly remembered as heroism deployed in a noble cause, World War II became the bitter black joke behind Heller’s antic flagellation of the military mind. Yet while Heller’s savage mockery of army bureaucracy and the shibboleths of war became the absurdist epiphany of the 1960’s, Jones was choosing to celebrate such old-fashioned virtues as bravery under fire and the warm solidarity of men at arms, that “most manly friendship which could exist between men who shared the pain and death, the fear and the sadness of combat—and the happiness in fighting by the side of your friend.” Imperturbably, he dedicated his combat novel “to those greatest and most heroic of all human endeavors, WAR and WARFARE, may they never cease to give us the pleasure, excitement, and adrenal stimulation that we need.”
Not that The Thin Red Line was merely a gung-ho glorification of combat. If one side of Jones’s imagination strove to apotheosize warfare as “the greatest” of all human endeavors, he was also capable of rendering with blunt power the charnel-house brutality and mutilation and senseless death that await soldiers in battle. Thus, though Jones and Heller put their experience of carnage to seemingly opposite use, the scene in The Thin Red Line in which a soldier whose belly has been ripped open drives the company mad with his piercing yells while trying to keep his intestines from falling out is as horribly ineradicable from the mind as the much quoted description in Catch-22 of the wounded gunner whose “insides slithered down to the floor in a soggy pile and just kept dripping out.” But Jones also needed to believe that the reality of war, however nightmarish and bloody, was in the end something other than Heller’s lunatic farce. As the company commander shouts in this scene, in a line straight out of an old James Cagney movie: “This is where we separate the sheep from the goats and the men from the boys.”
The Thin Red Line was the last work of sustained literary merit that Jones wrote, though he ground out four more novels before his death. It was as if his idea of the fearlessly aggressive virility that distinguishes men from boys had become frozen for the rest of his days by the army’s unyielding maleness, which ritualized not only the soldier’s performance of his duty and the punishment of his derelictions, but his drunkenness and whoring, his obscenity, his deeply private longings and distemper. If the army was the only milieu in which Jones felt at home as a writer, it was because that fine-tuned machine of war, that honeycomb of rules and traditions and ranks and regulations, provided him with a rigidly stable point of personal, sexual, and social reference, the unalterable measure by which he could grasp and judge the world at large. Indeed, the army was the world—the great American cross-section of rubes and city slickers, leaders and lackeys, bullies and men of honor, fags and he-men, pillars of society and Dead End kids, redneck louts and visionary rebels.
James Jones was a textbook example of that indigenous figure in American literature whom Philip Rahv called the redskin, “a self-made writer in the same way that Henry Ford was a self-made millionaire.” The numbing regimentation and the jungle violence, the mindless tedium and primitive integrity of the barracks world was Jones’s singular experience, his sole claim to originality. In his first book, From Here to Eternity, he had made the most of it. Investing all his imaginative energy in “the cult of experience,” Jones relived his peacetime-army years with such seductive authority, such a torrent of unforgotten detail, that, rereading the book after more than twenty years, I found myself drawn helplessly back into its raw vitality, all 857 pages of it, as though it were a fresh adventure.
But of course all the weaknesses of the redskin writer also stand out like bayonets in From Here to Eternity—the sentimentality and the half-baked mysticism, the puerile rejection of human and cultural attachments. Thus, Robert E. Lee Prewitt, the Harlan County miner’s son who blows the sweetest and purest bugle ever heard, and whom Jones portrays, à la Natty Bumppo, as one of nature’s doomed noblemen, yearns with restless nostalgia for the boundless freedom and undemanding male fraternity of hobos on the open road:
Maybe back in the old days, back in the time of the pioneers, a man could do what he wanted to do, in peace. But he had the woods then, he could go off in the woods and live alone. . . . And if they followed him there for this and that, he could just move on. There was always more woods on up ahead. But a man cant [sic] do that now. He’s got to play ball with them. He has to divide it all by two.
This passage captures another quality of Jones’s writing, its discomfort in the presence of ideas. Like Thomas Wolfe, whose woozy ah-life rhetoric had made Jones decide to become a writer after he left the army, Jones had a bad habit of confusing incantation with thought, particularly if the big pseudo-philosophical bubbles came from a self-taught rolling stone like (in From Here to Eternity) the charismatic ex-Wobbly Jack Malloy, who becomes Prewitt’s mentor while the two of them are doing time together in the stockade. Ideas were in fact alien and threatening to Jones’s imagination and temperament. Although he did not come by his devotion to “naturalness” altogether naturally (he stemmed from a middle-class family long established in the small town of Robinson, Illinois), Jones did feel an instinctive affinity for the “basic artless simplicity” of unlettered hillbillies strumming mournful and lonely songs on cheap guitars. Even after he made his curious move to Paris (true to anachronistic form, he went there in 1959, after all the other expatriate American writers had gone home, and stayed for sixteen years), Jones proudly told an interviewer: “I’m no intellectual. I’m no intellectual radical. I’ve always been a rebel.” It is a piquant and revealing distinction, since the man who boasts that he has always been a rebel is most likely a rebel without any cause but rebellion.
If Jones’s commitment to the cult of experience paid off handsomely, in every sense, in From Here to Eternity (and rather less so in The Thin Red Line), it proved a literary disaster when he applied his “technique” of total saturation to postwar civilian life in the Midwest (Some Came Running, 1957) and, foolishly rushing in where Hemingway had dared to tread, to the sporting life (Go to the Widow-Maker, 1967). Without the organizing framework and moral architecture imposed by a military setting, Jones rambled and limped, pelted his readers with fatuous pseudo-profundities about art/life, and told them everything they didn’t want to know about spear-fishing, skin-diving, and sex, especially sex.
In his first two novels, Jones had been forced to cut out yards of sexual explicitness and foul-mouthing of the kind that was then considered impermissible. But when the repressive walls came tumbling down, it turned out that he had nothing different to offer, just a great deal more of the same. His male characters in Go to the Widow-Maker think of women no differently from the Schofield Barracks soldiers who crowd Mrs. Kipfer’s whorehouse in From Here to Eternity. His women are either neurotic wives who don’t know what they’re missing or jolly hookers who love their line of work so much, they will even do it for nothing. Indeed, the anything-goes society of the 1960’s proved more liability than liberation for Jones. As the last of the red-hot naturalists, he wallowed in the naming of parts and the coarse sentimentality that goes with it. While Norman Mailer was groping toward a grand metaphysics of sex, Jones remained stuck at the level of basic training.
After the clobbering he took for his one Paris novel, The Merry Month of May (trying to cope with intellectuals caught up in the Sorbonne riots of 1968, he was completely out of his depth), Jones sensibly turned again to the military past where he belonged. Whistle,1 which he had not quite finished at the time of his death, was to be the last volume of a hindsight trilogy (begun nearly thirty years before with From Here to Eternity and continued a decade later in The Thin Red Line) that “will say just about everything I have ever had to say, or will ever have to say, on the human condition of war and what it means to us, as against what we claim it means to us.” An orthodox realist to the end, refusing to budge from “a time span corresponding to my own experience,” he was finally making use in this last novel of the months he had spent in an army hospital in Memphis, in 1943, after being wounded in the South Pacific.
Four soldiers from the same infantry company make the long and painful journey together to Memphis (Jones calls it Luxor), and three of them, Jones reveals in an introductory note, are old friends, renamed from From Here to Eternity: Private Prell, his thighs smashed, is the Kentucky bugler Prewitt risen from the dead; First Sergeant Winch, suffering from malaria and a bad heart, is the irascible cynic Warden, a more gifted leader than any West Pointer; Mess Sergeant Strange, his hand crippled by a mortar fragment, is the inarticulate cook, Stark, who wore the perpetual look “of a man who is hanging on to the earth to keep it from moving away.” These Regular Army soldiers, plus the drafted “college man,” Landers, had fought in the same company and now, waiting for their wounds to heal, in the safety of home, are plagued with a terrifying sense of dislocation and guilt. As long as the rest of the company is still fighting in the jungle, then it is out there, and not in the boozy fleshpots of Luxor, that they feel they belong:
Back out in the raging, infected disaster areas, where we could succumb, die, disappear, vanish forever along with what seemed to us now the only family we ever had. . . . We were like a group of useless unmanned eunuchs . . . eating sweetmeats from the contemptuous fingers of the females in the garden, and waiting for news from the seneschals in the field.
Torn loose from the company, that mystically covenanted male fraternity, these “half-unmanned” casualties of war, haunted by unrelenting nightmares of combat, cling to each other at the hospital in panicky desperation, as though the disintegration of a solidarity fused by “shared deaths, shared woundings, shared terrors” will propel each of them to his private doom.
In the opening chapter of Whistle, an intensely charged meditation on the soldier’s allegiance to his company, Jones writes with a passionate assurance that had evaded him for years, but after this splendid start, the novel disintegrates along with the company. When sex rears its head, as it does with paralyzing redundancy in Whistle—Memphis in wartime, as Jones remembers it, had an inexhaustible supply of doxies only too eager to please—everything else is obliterated, and the tedium becomes lethal.
Yet if one can manage to overlook his obsession with the mechanics of fornication, Jones is clumsily trying to explore in Whistle a phenomenon that no other contemporary American novelist I know of has touched upon. This is the atavistic force of male bonding—that primal tie of the hunting band which the wonderfully named anthropologists Lionel Tiger and Robin Fox recently investigated in a book that outraged many feminists. That male bonding does exist in modern society is unarguable, however, and James Jones portrays its power in the fears of his wounded soldiers that the collapse of their company, that masculine confraternity of cojónes and valor and comradeship, will leave them vulnerable to a lonely and destructively separate fate. Landers, unwilling to accept his discharge from the army, drunkenly wonders why the four-man remnant of the company has split asunder: “In each case,” he decides, “it was a woman who had pulled them away. Females . . . had split the common male interest . . . had broken the centripetal intensity of the hermetic force which sealed them together in so incestuous a way.”
An unregenerate anachronism to the last, Jones was immune on this issue, as on every other, to the promptings of the Zeitgeist. What the paleface considers unmentionable, this redskin did not hesitate to say. Jones had learned from experience that men can feel bereaved when army solidarity comes to an end, and what he had learned from experience was the only truth he knew.
1 Delacorte, 457 pp., 10.95.