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The Never-Ending War

For 30 years, James Jones wondered how you come back from counting yourself as dead.

Book review, Dec. 20, 2014

In 1975, the publisher Grosset & Dunlap brought out a coffee-table book about the graphic art of World War II. It reproduced hundreds of works, most of them obscure or unknown, by official military artists, newspaper illustrators and amateurs—everything from pencil sketches made by soldiers on South Pacific bases to grand commemorative paintings designed to hang on Pentagon walls. To provide the text, the publisher asked not an art critic or a historian but the writer and combat veteran James Jones, famous for blockbuster novels about the war like “From Here to Eternity” and “The Thin Red Line.” The result was a unique and fascinating volume. Even now, after a perpetually surging Noah’s flood of “Good War” literature, “WWII: A Chronicle of Soldiering” stands out as one of the most vivid documents ever produced on how the war looked and felt to those who experienced it firsthand.

The book is long out of print and likely to stay that way—it would take a military task force of its own just to re-secure all the rights and permissions. But the University of Chicago Press has reissued Jones’s essay as a stand-alone, minus almost all the illustrations. It can’t be said that this is a particularly successful idea. In the original edition, Jones’s words played off the art in all kinds of glancing and surprising ways; reading it solo is like watching one side of a tennis match. But this is a too-little-known piece of work by a great American writer, and readers will discover unexpected, alarming, dazzling or horrifying observations on every page—as, for instance, Jones’s unforgettable description of the features of corpses on a battlefield that somehow makes them seem unreal:

In that manner of all combat dead, he appeared to be faceless. He had all the parts of a physiognomy, eyes, ears, nose, lips, but there was a peculiar indistinct haziness about them when you looked. I don’t know what causes this effect. I used to think it was because we did not want to look closely, and so let our eyes slide away from the face. But later I noted the same effect in photos of the dead.

That’s not to say it’s a masterpiece. There are good reasons why Jones’s books have fallen into obscurity since his death in 1977, and in “WWII” they’re pretty thick on the ground. The brilliant observations alternate, sometimes line by line, with passages of appalling crudity. Readers have to put up with Jones’s casual racism about “Japs”; his love of making tasteless jokes at wildly inappropriate moments (the American entry into the war conjures up an unquotable fantasy about the typical soldier’s “fresh, dewy-eyed, virginal sister”); and a misogyny of Neanderthalesque purity. A passage about the Rosie-the-Riveters of the home front begins: “They weren’t all of them easy lays, by any means.”

And it is not that Jones is the victim of changing cultural fashion. From the beginning, he was regarded as a hopeless barbarian—a barely educated street kid from the poor part of town who knew nothing about literary niceties. It was only his direct experiences of the war (he had been at both Pearl Harbor and Guadalcanal) that made him worth reading; critics were always reluctant to admit that he had any other detectable merit. “Jones is a real literary primitive,” the critic Wilfrid Sheed wrote, whose books were only interesting “by mistake and in spite of themselves.” Sheed, it should be noted, considered himself a fan. Geoffrey Wolff in Newsweek in 1971 said: “Jones writes so badly that his offenses constitute as great a crime against nature as against literature.”

But the oddest thing about Jones’s novels now (most of which, happily, have been recently reissued by the e-book and print-on-demand publisher Open Road) is how conscious and deliberate they seem. “The Thin Red Line” (1962), his novel about Guadalcanal, is a seemingly uncontrolled barrage of violence, obscenity, squalor and savagery—but beneath the chaotic surface, almost unnoticed, is a fully articulated literary whole, beautifully shaped around the classical unities of time, place and action like a straight-line transmission from Aristotle’s “Poetics.” (One of the few people to pick up on this quality was Terrence Malick, in his dreamlike, shimmering movie adaptation.) This wasn’t a fluke, either. Jones’s enormous novels may billow up before the reader like storm fronts, but each one reveals a controlled and subtle literary design.

Jones, moreover, wasn’t really interested in documenting the war as such. He was fascinated by the strange thresholds and fringes that exist on the outskirts of war, where its presence is everywhere sensed but nowhere visible—what anthropologists like to call “liminal spaces.” “The Thin Red Line” is the only one of his novels to describe battle directly. “The Pistol” (1959) is about a military patrol in Hawaii waiting for a Japanese invasion that doesn’t arrive; “Whistle” (published posthumously in 1978) is set at a military hospital on the other side of the world from the fighting. “From Here to Eternity,” sometimes called the greatest American novel about the war (it was his first book and made his reputation upon publication in 1951, when he was 29), isn’t about the war at all. It’s set at a Hawaiian Army base in the last weeks of peace before Pearl Harbor, and its unforgettable portrait of the incompetence, corruption and institutionalized brutality of the American military gains force from the reader’s knowledge of what’s up ahead.

This idea of the war as a looming, terrifying but unspoken presence reaches its furthest extent in the book that Jones considered his masterpiece, “Some Came Running” (1957). The subject is simple: A combat veteran returns to his Illinois hometown. But the substance is realized so deeply and with such astonishing artistic integrity that it borders on the metaphysical.

Dave Hirsh has survived the fighting, apparently intact. But his mind is a continual, helpless tumult of violent emotions. He never talks about the war; he barely even thinks about it, but it seems to be seething behind everything he does. He throws tantrums when faced with any authority figure. He goes into frenzies of frustration if a woman refuses to sleep with him. At the dinner table, he spirals down into helpless bewilderment when he realizes that he is expected to pour dressing on his own salad.

We would say now that this is a story of PTSD—but back in the 1950s the concept didn’t exist. (The closest available euphemism was “battle fatigue,” which, as George Carlin once observed, sounds like something that happens to a jeep.) Hirsh has no way of describing what’s wrong with him, and nobody around him has a clue—in fact, they don’t see that anything in particular is wrong with him. He seems like a perfectly ordinary guy, like any other combat veteran.

They may even be right. What’s most disturbing about “Some Came Running” is that Hirsh is so recognizable. He appears to be a wholly typical example of American male psychopathology, circa midcentury: the maniacal possessiveness about women that he mistakes for love, the brutal competitiveness toward other men that passes for friendship, the bafflement about manners, culture, society, polite conversation. Hirsh even displays that near-universal American male response to criticism: listening sullenly, reluctantly conceding some minor fault and then growing excessively aggrieved if the subject is ever mentioned again.

Maybe this is what the war did to a generation of American men, or maybe it just reinforced what we are like to begin with. Jones himself offers no diagnoses. Instead he did everything possible to obliterate from the novel whatever might look like literary distancing or moralizing. To an extent virtually without parallel in American literature, we are with Hirsh in Hirsh’s world. The narrative voice even splinters around his quirky syntactic garbles and his impoverished language. (“He sneered . . . he said sneeringly . . . he said with a sneer on his face . . . he said in his sneering manner,” all on the same page.) For more than a thousand pages, we drift with Hirsh as he passes through postwar America, trying and failing to find a foothold that will bring him home—but in the end he is still floating free, a spaceman lost on a new planet, drawn toward a tragic end as though dreamily circling a whirlpool. There is a resolution of sorts, but not one that provides the slightest comfort: The Korean conflict erupts, and the novel is pulled back toward war as though it had never left.

“Some Came Running” might be easier to assimilate if there were any other novels like it. But there really aren’t. In its intransigence, its defiance of conventional expectations, its stony refusal to make the slightest concession to readability, it stands alone in postwar American literature. Its first readers didn’t have the slightest idea what to make of it; the novel was a colossal financial failure, and Jones had to take work he despised—like writing the screenplay for the drearily prestigious war movie “The Longest Day”—just to make his rent. The complete text has never been reprinted; instead the book has been available only in a brutally abridged paperback packaged to look like a “Peyton Place” melodrama about sex in small-town America. (The new Open Road edition is also abridged, but at least it has been done with a decent degree of care and under the guidance of Jones’s daughter.) But adventurous readers who seek out the first edition will find a novel deserving of genuine respect—maybe even awe, if only because it makes postmodern landmarks of deliberate difficulty like William Gaddis’s “The Recognitions” or David Foster Wallace’s “Infinite Jest” seem as airy as Wodehouse.

It also makes the reader wonder about Jones himself. Did he ever move beyond the immense psychic stalemate of “Some Came Running”? This question gives “WWII: A Chronicle of Soldiering” its secret fascination: He was 30 years out from the war when he wrote it, the last major piece of work he completed before his death. But “WWII” reads in places as though the veterans of Jones’s earlier novels are still stuck in the barracks grousing about the idiocy of their commanders and the faithlessness of all women. The tone, though, is somehow different: The old furious energy is gone. “WWII” is one of Jones’s shortest books, but it still dawdles and meanders, as though he had all the time in the world. After a while, the book starts to seem like a tour of a war museum in the company of an eccentric old veteran who pauses before each exhibit and spins out all kinds of angry, amused, sorrowful and horrified thoughts without caring much if he is enlightening the visitor.

The most remarkable passage comes at the end, when Jones takes up a little-known byway of the history of the war: the plan the Americans had worked out for the invasion of the Japanese home islands. The invasion as Jones describes it is a nightmarish prospect: a campaign lasting for another year or more, with hundreds of thousands or possibly millions of fresh casualties. Jones grows so distraught that it’s as though he has briefly forgotten that the campaign never happened. But then, in a trailing diminuendo, he comes back to himself and realizes that the war really did end after all:

So slowly it faded, leaving behind it a whole generation of men who would walk into history looking backwards, peering forever over their shoulders behind them, at their own lengthening shadows trailing across the earth. None of them would ever really get over it.

This article appeared Dec. 20, 2014, in the The Wall Street Journal in print and online at WSJ.com. It carried the following note.

Lee Sandlin died on Dec. 14 while finishing the edits of this essay. He wrote for the Journal on topics as varied as Thomas De Quincey, Henry Miller, pulp fiction and the gunfight at the O.K. Corral. His book on the Mississippi, “Wicked River” (2010), is a classic, and last year Pantheon re-published the 45,000-word essay he wrote for the Chicago Reader tracing the lives of his great-aunts and -uncles in Edwardsville, Ill. Our reviewer noted of “The Distancers” that Lee had fashioned “something beautiful from unpromising material.” He equally transformed every topic he approached. We mourn the passing of a beautiful writer and a friend.

Lee reviewed: WWII: A Chronicle of Soldiering by James Jones (University of Chicago Press $17), and Some Came Running by James Jones (Open Road, 1,025 pages, $34.99)