Abandoned Books

Reviews of books and authors not much discussed on the web.

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Location: Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

Sunday, April 15, 2007

Quick Look: James Jones



Yeah, I know, it’s been a long time since I’ve updated this thing. Hey, I was sick.
Anyway, Jones. I read From Here to Eternity -- at least as much of it as I could get through -- and The Thin Red Line -- ditto -- awhile back. I found Jones a frustrating experience.

He’s frustrating because he’s so damn good in miniature. Parts of both books are just extremely good, so good that you can’t quite believe you’re reading something that good -- but it just fails to cohere as a whole.

Since my rhythm’s all off this is going to have to be shorter than I intended, as I don’t even have my copy of From Here anymore to refer to. Originally I intended this to be a rather long piece, as I think Jones, while by no means a good writer, is an extremely interesting writer to look at, particularly in an historical context. But well, hell’s bells and all that. We work with what’s given us.

From Here has a drive and push and an authenticity which feels wholly lacking in somebody like Irwin Shaw, who’s The Young Lions, while it has it’s virtues, does feel like an upscale Boho’s feeling of What War Must Be Really Like. In short bursts it’s a wonderful book -- the scene in the bordello, the fake marriage of the officer and his wife (see, I don’t have the book here, I can’t even remember their names), the slow torture of Prewitt when he refuses to join up the boxing brigade, etc. This is all great stuff.

But it’s all in the service of this: “Will Prewitt join the boxing team or not?” Yes, I know Jones tries to imbue this with some kind of mythic significance, that it’s some kind of eternal battle writ small. Yeah, yeah, I get it. That doesn’t change the primary fact that in the “real world” of the book, we’re asked to participate in an epic about Whether or Not Prewitt Will Join the Boxing Squad. I mean, a lot of fuss and bother about not much of anything.

And yeah, I get the idea that the eventual Pearl Harbor attack makes this all sort of meaningless, too. But that just butresses my point: I’m being asked to devote almost a thousand pages to pointlessness, when you get right down to it, and at the end of the day I’m asked to celebrate the giant waste of time this involved.

It’s frustrating. It’s like being roped into a club being promised Live! Naked! Girls! and discovering all you get is a Borscht Belt comedian. It’s like staying up late to watch a Shannon Tweed movie but she doesn’t get naked. All tease, no follow-through.

I’ve been reading a lot of novels from this period (immediate post WW2) and I plan on reading a lot more, and I’ve become absolutely convinced that the besetting sin of this era was the English Class attempt to write The Great American Novel. A hopelessly middlebrow project, and writers inevitably crashed on the shoals of this mirage. People were so interested in writing something meaningful they lost their focus on writing something good.

From Here to Eternity would’ve worked much better as a series of short stories, this is a collection of small ideas that is simply afflicted with hardcore bloat.

The Thin Red Line actually has a storyline all wrapped up and handed to it -- it’s about the battle of Guadalcanal, or as near as dammit, anyway. And it’s better than Eternity, at least it’s about something real and important. And as always, Jones’s view of the army, and of war, and of what men do there seems dead-on accurate. I also particularly like Jones’s use of pov here: there is no one set protagonist -- the brigade itself is the protagonist -- and Jones travels like God over all of them, dipping into their minds when he needs to. It’s quite smart, and rather more sophisticated than the rather off-the-rack structure of Eternity (which even features two straightup love stories, one done reasonably well, one shoehorned in and, well, not so much.)

But I ended up giving up on this one, too. It seemed to me that Jones has his say in about the first hundred pages or so -- and after that it goes on, and on, and on, restating the same damn thing over and over again. It too suffers from bloat, just not as much. Line would’ve worked better as a novella, I think. (Or novelette. Do they still call them that?) I would’ve ended things after the attack on the Elephant, myself.

Jones was a small talent trying to conform to the market and sociological realities of his day; he’s an interesting example of how an artist who doesn’t really understand himself can be subsumed by the world around him. There are nuggets of value in these books, but I think in general Jones has to be considered a failed writer. His vision feels too compromised.

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