By Lawrence Garber
In Viet Journal, the second-to-last work James Jones published before his death in 1977 at age fifty-five, there is recorded one of the most poignant moments in modern American literature. Poignant, that is, for Jonesians everywhere. On his way home from a writing assignment in Viet Nam where he witness the final phase of U.S. involvement there — an old soldier assessing a new kind of war — Jones made an unplanned stop in Hawaii. It was late March, 1973, thirty-one years since he had last seen these islands as an infantryman at Schofield barracks, twenty-two years since he had made claim to them as his own mythical territory in From Here to Eternity. He was nearing fifty-two, already beginning his slow death of congestive heart failure, a craggy, middle-aged ruin of the fierce cock-of-the-walk he had once been; and this was his nostos, a return of Odyssean magnitude to the one spiritual home that had permanently scored his consciousness (an ours) that had made all his literature possible, that had set his attitudes for life.
It is not given to many to have such a place to return to, one that resonates so clearly and painfully with a sense of genesis, and Jones records the compulsion to re-enter his past as if under the sway of siren-songs: “I had not been in Viet Nam more than a week, before I knew I was going to do it. And once I had made up my mind, it seemed I had known all along that I would go. That I could not not go. A sounding of Recall. The song ‘Jamaican Farewell’ was much in my mind…” In The White Album, Joan Didion has written that Hawaii belongs to Jones in the same way that Kilimanjaro belongs to Hemingway and Oxford, Mississippi, to Faulkner; places not only of sources but of recapitulations, terrains for discovering where we have gone because we have never quite left them. In Honolulu, on Waikiki, at Schofield barracks, Jones retraced his steps, seeing out what remained of his youth, “a certain twenty-two-year-old boy, walking along Kalakaua Avenue in a ‘gook’ shirt.” It was something akin to the seven stations of the cross of for the man who had written the finest army novel in the language while still in his twenties: the Royal Hawaiian Hotel (preserve of the officers), the New Senator Hotel (where Lorene in Eternity had worked as a prostitute), Wu Fat’s Chinese restaurant (where Maggio had gone off guard duty and into the stockade), the Waialae Golf Coruse (where Prewitt had been killed trying to return to his unit), the Post Library where Jones himself had first read Thomas Wolfe’s Look Homeward, Angel and knew instantly that he had been a writer all his life without having yet written a word. One has to understand that Jones’s return at fifty-two to the setting of his first novel was a return for all of us who had been moved and turned by the great work: a kind of communal nostos for a generation that had discovered in Jones the perfect voice of revolt and conscience.
But during the tour, Jones was disturbed, too, by all the things that had changed of the world he had known and understood and a profound sense of futility and loss shades his account. Something to do as well with the scorched veteran of life he had become, with the personal and literary wars he had fought and lost and drawn since the heady days of his first success. Then, on the day of his departure, the climatic moment: that morning he drove out to Makapuu Head, for “something kept telling me I shouldn’t miss Makapuu.” One the way there, Jones became increasingly depressed as he saw how the landscape had altered, the farms and cattle ranges gone, the bulldozers and earthmoving equipment at work extending the Lunalilo Freeway. It had been at Makapuu Point in November of 1941 — a month before the Japaneses attack on Pearl Harbour — that Jones’s F Company had dug five pill-boxes into the cliff rocks, and now, suddenly, as Jones got closer, “the constantly starting and stopping cars…seemed no longer to be there…A curtain had dropped behind me, cutting me off from them, and with a kind of frightened, awed wonder I stood looking at a scene that had not changed one glass blade since I had last looked at it thirty years before.” Then a further miracle of sorts happened and Jones was not only merely encountering the landscape of his past but, for a brief awesome moment, reliving it as the young man he had once been:
My feet started carrying me up the complex of faded paths as surely as thought they knew the way before my eyes did…. They were all there. All five of them. I stood in each of them a long time, looking out and remembering times when late at night I had sat behind machine-guns in all of them, staring out into the dark toward Rabbit Island and the beach that faced it. When I came up out of the last one and started back down, I looked down and automatically placed my foot on a natural step in the rock that we had always sued to climb in or out. I was still there, unchanged, uneroded, unchipped. An my foot still knew where it was. I stood staring down at it for several seconds, shocked, and when I looked back up and looked down the hill at the tourists and the clustered cars, it was as if I were back in 1942, when the overlook was empty, peering forward into an unforeseeable future when it would be open and crowded with sightseers, as it was now. The only thing that was different was that I was alone, that there was nobody with me.
But Jones wasn’t alone. As one of the millions of readers who had read From Here to Eternity in the fifties and thrilled to its realistic depiction of the peacetime army and the tragic rituals of honour and comradeship, and as one of the considerably fewer who held onto the faith over the years that Jones was unique, an American original, whose gifts were instinctive rather than learned (like a Joe Louis, a Rocky Marciano), I like to think that Jones’s lonely nostos was a shareable thing, that he had built a spiritual landscape in his work of textured and tactile that it could be inhabited permanently like all the great houses of fiction. The real estate of Elysium. Many would disagree, and I must admit that my own perspective on Jones and his accomplishments has long ago passed beyond the critical and into something resembling a personal graph. In the way of an unofficial apostle, I tend to see all of his many flaws and complexes and limitations as the weaves in a larger, bolder tapestry. Certainly, after the great success of Eternity, his reputation suffered considerably (the price for writing an early great novel must always be paid in America, Jones himself knew); from Some Came Running onwards, critical perceptions of his work were variously lukewarm and cruel, and eventually dismissive. The point has always been, thought, that either Jones’s impact on his readers was immediate and personal, or not at all. It has to do with the kind of writer he was, digging directly into his own sounds for material, making absolutely no attempt to compromise or camouflage his own obsessions, never playing it safe. That, above all else, is why he appealed so powerfully to me and a whole generation still in their teens when From Here to Eternity appeared in 1951. Even then, at the height of his early fame, a winner of the National Book Award, the last author to be edited by Maxwell Perkins at Scribner’s, growing rich, there were those who thought his world view as basically adolescent, filled with half-baked philosophies, narrow macho codes and the residues of his own sexual frustration. The truth was that at the deepest psychological level he had tapped into the fundamental crisis of untried youth and the response, particularly of my generation, had been profound and overwhelming. No other novel of the time was more fantasized over than this one.
I can remember bothering my father to drive me down to Coles bookstore at Yonge and Charles in downtown Toronto when I was fourteen to buy a copy of the first paperback printing of From Here of Eternity with its famous black-and-red bugle cover. I knew that they would not have sold me, over the counter, this hesitating, skinny kid with brushcut and glasses, such a sizzling work, and my father had to go in to buy it for me. I can still to this day still inhale the smell of that fresh Signet pulp paper, like the scent of oil on leather. I remember the following summer when I first tired my hand at a novel, a fifteen-year-old’s version of Jones’s epic, sitting in our backyard on Rostrevor Raod, writing in longhand on long yellow sheets an army novel called The Boovermak Episode, which ran to three hundred pathetic pages and managed to recycle every relationship, incident and tragic nuance of the original. I remember that when I first went to Paris in 1962 I would gravitate regularly to the Ile St. Louis where Jones and his family lived in a remarkable apartment at 10 Quai d’Orleans overlooking the Seine; circling the area, I would sometimes linger in the narrow rue Budé in front of the heavy entrance doors wondering if I would ever muster the courage to push the buzzer and pay my respects. I never did, though Jones was known to be a notoriously easy touch and extraordinarily generous to people like myself, aspiring young writers without credentials. I became an habituté of Shakespeare and Company, an untidy little bookstore across the river because I knew that Jones sometimes dropped around to scour the shelves or attend cocktail parties in the upstairs quarters. George Whitman, an American, who still runs it, was equally generous to young people going for broke in the land of Hemingway; there was free coffee on a hot plate upstairs, chairs and sofas for reading, corners for down-and-outers to sleep in overnight; if you re-shelved a book with your bookmark still in place George wouldn’t sell it until you had finished. The sort of place Jones would’ve liked, unpretentious, fundamental, open-ended. I met him there one afternoon, at last, as he browsed along the narrow corridors of shelves. He was square-bodied, lantern-jawed, fierce-looking; not a big man but he gave the impression of compacted power that went all the way to his eyes. I managed to push out something, half-greeting, half-tribute, and he nodded, and that was it,sadly. And I remembered an hour’s conversation with Mary McCarthy in London, Ontario, a few years after his death, when she spoke of his problems as a writer and virtues as a man. I ought to have paid him a call in Paris, she said; he was good at that sort of thing. Strangers who buzzed him up from the rue Budé often stayed for dinner.
After the terrific impact I had experienced with From Here to Eternity, I took to following his career as closely as I have any writer’s. At the broadcast publicity level, that wasn’t difficult since Jones was perhaps the first post-World War II writer to achieve international celebrity, to sign blockbuster multi-deal contracts, to leave live out the dream of the rich and famous American artists living in Europe, wintering in Klosters, Switzerland, scuba-diving in Greece and the Bahamas, establishing at his residence in Paris a gathering place for expatriates where the weekly Saturday evening parties were legendary. He was regarded as a cultural phenomenon by the media right from the start, good copy this heartland American ex-soldier boy who marched brashly into Max Perkins’s office at Scribner’s, carrying his manuscript in a box, demanding attention; who had written the most exciting novel of the decade while crossing America in a trailer; who kept a vast collections of guns and knives and knew how to use them; who boxed for real, and was photographed by Life in his fencing outfit, daring the fates to take him on. Norman Mailer called him the most naturally gifted author of his generation, Ed Murrow interviewed him on “Person to Person,” and the somewhat misleading myth of the noble savage who had seized his moment and confounded the establishment began. It was a trap that extent of which Jones only realized later, but it was the sort of story — helped along at the time by Jones himself — that proved as fascinating to the public as the big novel he had produced.
And, of course, every subsequent book he wrote I bought and devoured, even when the reviews ran thin and wicked: the 1,266-page Some Came Running (1957),the most exhaustive study of mid-western America in the language; the jewel-precision war novella, The Pistol (1959); the scuba-diving study of masculinity and its illusions, Go to the Widow-Maker (1967); the short-story collection, The Ice Cream Headache (1968), containing some pre-Eternity material that dealt with the pain of coming of age in the middle of American; his misfiring novel built around the Paris student revolution of 1968, The Merry Month of May (1971); his gutsy excursion into the hard-boiled detective genre à la Chandler and Hammett, A Touch of Danger (1973) and WWII (1975), the latter an informal history of the war ostensibly written to accompany reproductions of war art but containing perhaps the best account of the Pacific theatre from the combat soldier’s point of view. Most of all, there was the war trilogy, the first and final books of which enveloped his career and defined his life. Eleven years after From Here to Eternity came The Thin Red Line (1962), considered to be the best combat novel since The Red Badge of Courage, and then the last book of the trilogy, so long delayed, that he was so desperately working on at this death, Whistle (1978), published posthumously, its final sections dictated on his deathbed. Fearing not death so much as not finishing.
But there was a lot I didn’t know about Jones that anyone interested in the significance of his life and work would want to know. Frank MacShane’s biography, Into Eternity — the first full biography — gives a needed shape and scope to the life and measures the man and the oeuvre in a way which makes no larger claims than his achievements justify or that Jones himself would have wanted. “The Life of James Jones, American Writer” is the subtitle of MacShane’s book, and it is in Jones’s quintessential Americanness, in his roots and in the curve of his career, that MacShane finds his theme:
James Jones story is American to the bone…[There was an] almost mythic quality [to] his rise from obscurity…He had appeared like a comet from the heart of America, and he wrote with a directness and a truthfulness that recalled such distinctly American writers as Walt Whitman and Mark Twain. No one before had quite expressed Jones’s vision of American as a country of people torn between optimism and cynicism…Jones felt the naked and desperate energy this fundamental schism created in American life, and he was therefore able to evoke a response in his readers that few of his contemporaries could match…A man with the most ordinary of names, he was interested in the most ordinary of people…The intimacy of the provincial world in which he grew up made him see how intensely emotional human relations really are.
Yet while in a large part MacShane’s biography is a tribute to the kind of man and writer Jones was, it is by no means a panegyric; if Jones was a diamond-in-the-rough, a forceful, compelling literary jock, his character was nevertheless deeply flawed. He was obstinate and crude, fascinated with violence, obsessed with the reaches of his own masculinity, individualistic to the point of dismissing most received wisdom on principle, irretrievably suspicious of intellectuals and of all forms of political activism (one cause of his falling out with Mailer), a drinker, a fighter, a bully, scornful of writers like Proust, Lawrence or James whom he considered “effete” and corruptive (his favorites were Kipling and Conrad), and mistrustful of women (me married at thirty-six, before which he preferred the uncomplicated company of prostitutes). MacShane’s ordering of his materials demonstrates not only how Jones combatted and struggled thought these warps and limitations in his personal life, but how, at the bravest level of self-awareness, he utilized them as an integral part of his work. Indeed, Jones is frequently depicted as a classically fissured personality, a textbook American paradox in whom toughness and generosity, sentiment and cynicism, conservatism and rebelliousness, compromise and integrity operated in uneasy, troubling relationship. No one was more personally respected and admired among his contemporaries than Jones, a man of deep emotional attachments and loyalties, of roisterous charm and genuineness; yet his volatile nature also rendered him unpredictable and capable at times of surprising meanness and impatience. Jones’s personality was in this way a battleground, an explosive field of shifting contrary pulls: a war within that permitted him to understand so well those other wars he fought as soldier and author. The appeal of such explosiveness and self-division to a generation born into blandness is obvious. Equally appealing is that throughout his career Jones attempted to resolve this fissure by creating in his books two central figures who could represent his own disturbing two-sidedness: Robert E. Lee Prewitt and Milt Warden, Dave Hirsh and ‘Bama Dillert, Jonathan Hartley and Harry Gallagher — idealists and cynics, rebels and compromisers. Jones even resurrected his three major figures from Eternity (Prewitt, Warden, Stark) and made them principals (under new names) in his other trilogy novels in order to trace their development and, by implication, his own in terms of the conflicts that had shaped his life. MacShane views this as an imaginatively creative act, a refusal to let go of the demons; and it is certainly true that few writers have been as scrupulous in confronting the big existential issues on the one hand and the narrow psychic debilities on the other that make humans perform as compulsively as they do.
MacShane’s treatment of Jones goes some way towards solving various puzzles that have always mystified me concerning his entrenched attitudes. Why are Jones’s fictional women, for instance, so unfinished as characters compared to the intensity and depth of his male figures? A soldier’s world, of course, is a predominately male realm, but even in his “civilian” novels like Some Came Running or The Merry Month of May women are dealt with in remarkably stereotypical terms, often as insidious Circe figures, endangering masculine honour and integrity, The facts of Jones’s background and rearing explains a lot here. He was born on November 6, 1921, in Robinson, Illinois, to parents already in their mid-thirties. As a boy he was neither as large nor as athletic as his older brother Jeff, had weak eyes, wore glasses, failed at organized sports and possess small hands; he “quickly found that the best defense was to be aggressive and he began to abandon his natural gentleness for a more aggressive attitude.” Out of frustration and anger, he became a rebellious figure at school where “he was unpopular with his classmates….because he always compared unfavorably with his brother,” a naturally gifted athlete. The cult of masculinity that pervades his early work can be seen to have its origins here, in his need to provide his strength of character, and to turn his essential loneliness and sense of inadequacy into a principle of independence. His relationship to his mother is another key to his attitudes regarding women and sexuality, for one of Jones’s greatest themes revolved around the notion of American sexual maladjustment. She was tough on him from the first and he disliked her intensely. In a letter to his brother in 1967, he remembered her as “totally selfish, totally self-centered, and totally whining and full of self-pity…she was also basically stupid.” MacShane writes that “in later years, Jones went out of his way to make sure he did not emulate her in any way and occasionally blamed her for shortcomings in his own life. Undoubtedly she affected his attitude towards women, making him cautious and mistrustful.” When he was dying of congestive heart failure (she had died of the same disease in 1941), he went so far as to curse her memory for having willed him what he considered to be a hereditary weakness. Her influence on his sexual attitudes was even more direct:
One day, discovering that he was masturbating, she told him that if he continued to do so, his hand would turn black. For a while he stopped, but as the fear of his hand turning black receded, he started again. After discovering him in the act one night, his mother waited until he fell asleep and then went into his room and rubbed black shoe polish into the palm of his hand.
It is a curious thing, though, that however much he found commitment to women difficult, they tended to direct his life in powerful ways. The second important women whose influence shaped his attitudes was Lowney Handy, a figure who is one of the more bizarre minor footnotes in the history of American literature, and out of whose character Jones later drew a devastating portrait in Go to the Widow-Maker. Also, a resident of Robinson, Illinois, she was forty years old, seventeen years Jones’s senior, when he moved in with her and her husband following his discharge from the army. Lowney saw in Jones the makings of a great writer and herself as a kind of midwife to literature whose essential task was to provide the proper atmosphere and training for her proteges, of which Jones was the first. She became his mistress, apparently with her husband’s approval, not so much out of love or even promiscuity, but as “a charitable act,” servicing Jones’s sexual needs so that he could give his full attention to his writing. This was typical of Lowney’s views regarding the creative imagination and she was, in every way, a woman of fixed, dogmatic ideas concerning art, sex, philosophy. Her plan from the beginning was to develop Jones as a person “so that he would be capable of writing the novel she sensed was in him, struggling to get out.” She was self-taught, attracted to the individualism of the American transcendentalists, convinced that only the most spartan regimens could push an artists into producing a great work. For fifteen years she dominated Jones’s life and thinking, taught him how to overcome and re-channel personal bitterness and private anger, and managed to transform his earlier “adolescent” yearning for an ideal woman’s love into something pragmatic and cynical: “Under Lowney’s tutelage, he lost his former yearning for a woman to love, and now looked upon sex simply as a biological urge that needed occasional tending.” Women, love, marriage, were the enemies of artistic freedom, she counselled, entrapments that diminished male energy, sapped and distracted from creative power.
After the enormous success of Eternity, Jones helped Lowney found her famous “Colony,” a barracks-like compound in Marshall, Illinois, where aspiring young writers were made to live in austere minimal conditions, follow her instructions to the letter and go through a form of physical and mental training devised to release their fundamental masculine nature (belching, farting and coarse language at the table was encouraged). The Colony and its rules became legendary and Life magazine did a nine-page spread — called “James Jones and His Angel” — on the experiment. It was run on Spartan principles reminiscent of the army:: there was a special diet for colonists based on Lowney’s study of Yoga, 6:30 a.m. rising, lights out at 8 p.m., no newspapers or radio, no women members or female visitors, physical labor in the afternoon, exercises in copying out word for word the published works of masters like Hemingway, Faulkner and Jones himself (a practice based on Lowney’s theory of “osmosis”), and fifty dollars a month for a trip to the whores in Terre Haute. This “literary boot camp” was intended to purge the colonists of ego, to develop the discipline and self-knowledge necessary to write important work which meant, Lowney preached, ridding themselves of all external relationships and ambition. She encourages her young men to renounce family, marriage and emotional relations and all “sissyfying” Proustian impulses were discouraged by the threat of instant expulsion. .Jones was, of course, cock of the walk at the Colony, absolved from many strictures, and at the center of a world he could control. Eternity was, naturally, the model all colonists aspired to. But gradually even he began to realize Lowney’s limitations and the limited life that was offered there — a perverse extension of the regimentations of the Schofield barracks — an escape from the sort of emotional responsibilities that came with fuller, freer relationships he had been schooled to mistrust. And for all Lowney’s messianic zeal, history will record that not a single significant novel ever came out of the Colony; only Tom Chamales’ Never So Few is remembered at all.
Jones’s escape from Lowney’s domination was one of those difficult, bloody breakouts that characterized most of his choices; but the woman who replaced her, actress Gloria Mosolino, whom he married in 1957, gave a domestic and social order to his life that broke the pattern of barracks regimentation he compulsively maintained since his army days in Hawaii. Gloria was a beauty (she had been a stand-in for Marilyn Monroe during the filming of The Seven Year Itch) from a slightly shady Mafia family in Pottsville, Pennsylvania; she was stubborn and strong in the Jones mold, a party-girl and a gambler, and there is something of Bogart and Bacall in the fireworks they generated in their first years together. That marriage brought out new and surprising aspects of Jones; it certainly game him a healthier perspective concerning his own masculinity, muted the violent streak in him, and established him at the center of a more stable circle than he had ever known. Paris became their home for seventeen years where Jones discovered himself playing mentor and pater familias to countless expatriate Americans passing through. And because of his own unstable childhood and lack of strong bonds with his parents (his father had committed suicide when Jones was in the army), he was determined to provide a settled, happy environment for his own two children, Kaylie and Jaimie. In this phase of his life, grounded in a kind of island domesticity, Jones was able to pushed beyond the sacrosanct rituals of male boning in his work and in Go to the Widow-Maker, his fourth novel, he could take an ironic and even comical view of those macho codes and anxieties that had been so deeply embedded in the sweats of Eternity.
But as MacShane’s skilled deployment of his materials shows, Jones, for all the powerful women in his life, had been shaped by the army and it never left him. His work ethic and discipline were impressive; the collection of knives and guns was oiled and tended with the fastidiousness of a man who still needed to believe that his survival depended on them; the Friday evening poker games that eventually replaced the Saturday night parties at 10 Quai D’Orleans were boisterous and risky and in them was something of the gambling pits that he had known in Honolulu and at Schofield barracks. Yet if he had been shaped by war, he also knew how to revise the experience, how to give heroism another name. He had won the Purple Heart at Guadalcanal but he had never been under any illusions about the nature of courage. A Japaneses soldier he had bayonetted to death had caught him unawares defecating in the jungle and their grapplings had a dark gallows humor to it; the “wound” that brought him home in the middle of the Pacific campaign was a bad ankle suffered during a football game scrimmage; his discharge from the army in 1944 had been prompted by a series of psychiatric reports that found him mentally unfit for further combat. Like Stephen Crane before him, Jones was determined to be absolutely authentic in his report of similar men in extremis, to see fear and hopelessness as the twin dynamos that propelled millions of infantrymen through the shadow of the valley. The interwoven subtitle to WWII is “Evolution of a Soldier,” and Jones’s war novels can themselves be seen to evolve from prelude (Eternity) to combat (The Thin Red Line) to aftermath (Whistle). In each case, heroism suffers a further diminishment from its customary meaning. It is a cynical view that less and less romanticizes its own sense of grief; and in the final pages of that last novel at the end of his life, the recycled version of Prewitt, Warden, Fife and Stark find no way out of their misfit states except through suicide and madness.
MacShane offers a further surprise to those (myself included) who always viewed Jones as a primitive operating on gut instinct for the authentic in human relationships. It had long been a cherished belief of mine that Jones was a natural in every sense, that even his trademark stylistic awkwardness was somehow a confirmation of the instinctive straight-shooter I conceived him as being. It turns out, however, that Jones’s conscious literary ambitions were much higher than most gave him credit for. In preparing for From Here to Eternity, for instance, he steeped himself in Tolstoy’s War and Peace and Stendhl’s The Charterhouse of Parma, turning to epic models where the army itself had served as a microcosm of society. “He was eager to render the modern army as they [these authors] had rendered the armies of the preceding century. He knew that in the modern age military conflict had to be presented in modern terms, but he wanted to preserve the scale of the great nineteenth-century novels to which he hoped it would be compared.” He also experimented with language in Eternity, dispensing with apostrophes to get closer to the spoken language “where punctuation marks don’t exist;” and he deliberately devised an ungrammatically awkward prose to reflect the characters of his men and the world they inhabited, “to achieve a rhythm that would carry the emotional burden of what he was saying.”
Jones’s literary ambitions were certainly never small; only Thomas Wolfe before him in this century had possessed such an epic impulse for the grand, sweeping view. In Some Came Running, Jones claimed that he wanted “to do for the great American myth and illusion of romantic love what Cervantes did for the myth and illusion of chivalry.” When he finished that work, he posed for Life magazine with his twenty-three-hundred manuscript pages: “It was more than two feet thick and Jones could barely hold it.” From Jones the epic vision had to be made a tactile thing, dependent as much on literal weightiness as on great designs. Jones called this work his most misunderstood; no work by an author has ever received more vicious reviews. Yet Running is technically his most adventurous novel. Who would have guessed, for instance, that Jones had been influenced by the impressionist experiments of Flaubert and Ford Madox Ford? Yet Jones attempted to work a variation of le style indirect libre into his narratorial strategies in Running, using devices “intended to break down the barrier that traditionally exists between the language of the narrator and the language of the characters.” He believed that the abrupt change between colloquial dialogue and formal narrative was jolting, [and] he tried to reproduce in storytelling the quasi-grammatical circumlocutions he thought typical of midwestern speech and thought.” MacShane ranks Some Came Running — despite its structural flaws and tonal inconsistencies — with the work of Anderson, Wolfe and Steinbeck in portraying “the feelings and beliefs of a hitherto unrecorded segment of the American population…allowed to speak with an honesty and directness” uncommon in literature. In fact, every novel that Jones wrote was carefully conceived at the most erudite levels. The Thin Red Line, a combat novel modeled partly on Stendahl and partly on the Battle of Borodino section of War and Peace, was “meant to go further than either of those books in emphasizing the absurdity of war while concentrating on the personal side of combat and on enlisted men rather than officers.” To capture that personal side, Jones developed a another special narrative technique: “The story is told from the point of view of an omniscient narrator; but without breaking the rhythm of the narrative, Jones switches into the head of an individual soldier so that the reader has simultaneously an overview of what is happening.” Jones as Joycean? The notion is mind-boggling, yet he is revealed as a disciplined craftsman throughout his writing life, charged with the sense of literary tradition, pushing himself into difficult technical ranges, later influenced by the theories of Robert Ardrey and Tielhard de Chardin whose ideas he approached with a freshness and even a naivete inherent in his larger suspicions of all doctrinaire systems.
As in many an American fable, he came home to America to die… In 1974, he accepted an appointment at the Florida International University (Miami) as part-time visiting professor in creative writing. At a salary of $27,500 (for a writer who averaged between $160,000 and 200,000 a year) he conducted seminars and offered pithy, epigrammatic advice:
Show me the sympathetic insurance man. Everybody suffers.
The key is to catch the main character on the cusp of change.
Keep your first drafts.
A lot of American girls have built-in chaperons.
Jones’s decision to return to America was partly the result of having felt himself to have been a tourist in France for seventeen years; he had never learned the language properly, had had little to do with French literary circles (he considered the nouvelle vague creatively bankrupt), never troubled to understand the complex nuances of French society, and eventually saw “how artificial his relationship to France had been.” Such cultural loneliness has been self-induced, of course; he loved Paris as a city and the life-style it could offer him, but like many Americans living in Europe, he worked around the culture that was not his own, preferring the role of un-involved witness which is another form of freedom. Eventually, though, that sense of distance — which had produced The Merry Month of May — made him anxious to re-enter the American experience which had seeded his finest work, and after Florida, Jones and family settle in a farmhouse in Sagaponack, Long Island, where the race to finish Whistle was almost won.
He died at 7:45 p.m., May 9, 1977. All those who had been weaned on his fiction took the loss badly.The novel that we knew he had long planned on the gypsy jazz guitarist Django Reinhardt would never be written,. At the funeral service, old friends like William Styron and Irwin Shaw and Willie Morris delivered moving eulogies. The most highly regarded bugler in the army — arranged by Senator Edward Kennedy — played taps. It had been a brave death; alert and working on Whistle almost to the very end, he had sat on the edge of his hospital bed with tubes attached to his body, knowing that his heart could fail at any moment, dictating to Willie Morris in a faint voice the ends he had planned for those other soldiers, Prewitt, Warden, Stark, he understood so well. Dying himself and swiftly, he guided them into death with him.
There is an anecdote which touches nicely on what Jones means to me. It occurs about two-thirds of the way through MacShane’s masterly biography. In Paris,
After a quarrel in the car that made Jones walk away and leave Gloria to drive home alone, she became so flustered that she couldn’t get the motor to start. When a policeman arrived, she explained the situation by saying “Mon mari est en chaleur.” [My husband is hot.] Surprised, the policeman helped to get the car started and said, “Madame, you are very fortunate. I advise you to hurry home at once.”
There is a great deal of truth in that malapropism for Jones was always a writer in heat, never letting up on the intensity with which he confronted the big issues, never retreating from the larger questions a writer can ask. If he lacked the smoother skills of his immediate contemporaries, the daring political consciousness of Mailer, the narrative controls of Styron, the stylistic graces of Capote or Mathiessen, there was still a genuineness, a largess, a particular rage to his work that made him an American original. What Thomas Wolfe had been for Jones, Jones became for much of the generation growing up in the fifties.
I definitely should have pushed that buzzer in the rue Budé.
Lawrence Garber, Ph.D., is a retired from the faculty of the University of Western Ontario, however he continues to teach there part-time and is a recipient of the Angela Armitt Award for Excellence in Teaching by Part-Time Faculty. He is the author of several works of fiction including Sirens and Graces (Stoddart, 1983) and Visions Before Midnight (Penguin Canada, 1980).
Reprinted with permission from Lawrence Garber. This essay appeared in The Brick Reader (Coach House Press, 1991).