by WILFRID SHEED
WITH most writers, once you’ve said the book is bad you’ve said all there is to say; but with James Jones, you have barely begun at that point. For Jones is the king of the good-bad writers, those writers who seem to lie interesting by mistake and in spite of themselves, and whose motto might well be E. B. White’s advice to James Thurber concerning his drawings — to wit: “if you become any good, you’ll be mediocre.”
Technically, there is little danger of Jones’s ever becoming any good. His prose, struggle manfully with it though he may, remains a sneer-and-grin, pulp-fiction prose. His philosophical disquisitions sound like second-drawer reform-school bull sessions. His dialogue is wooden and undifferentiated, to the point where you can scarcely tell the girls from the boys. And to make assurance doubly sure, he seems to have passed beyond the reach of normal editorial protection against himself.
His new book, Go to the Widow-Maker, contains easily his worst writing to date. “He listened to the radio picking his teeth” might happen to anybody. But how about three “agitatedlys” and one “agitated” in the course of a page and a halt (“Agitatedly, Bonham motioned . . . agitatedly he motioned . . . motioned Grant violently . . . agitated finger”)? Or the four “roars” in a space of eleven lines? His people arc never allowed to laugh; they must always “roar with laughter.” And, sure sign of second-class matter, each must carry an identifying phrase wherever he goes, like a dog tag: the girl with the “champagne-colored hair,” the man with the “dirty cop’s grin.” One poor wight, clearly in the author’s bad books, is forever saying things “in his brutal fashion,” even when he is only asking for the salt. And so on - enough to make any agitated reader roar violently. Or, to use another Jonesism, “the irrationality of it was insane.”
It has always been easy to make fun of Jones on this level, especially when his publisher allows him to go out with his buttons undone like this. Jones is a real literary primitive (unlike Norman Mailer, who can turn it on and off), and as such he is a natural butt for the smoothies; he has also made a rather tasteless amount of money, which is an offense to all pious people.
Yet the body of his work amounts to something, and this very fact thrusts him ahead of his betters and earns him at least some of his money. Even his new book amounts to something, within this corpus (by itself it is almost worthless). His vulnerability includes a vulnerability to experience, which many of his tight-faced competitors lack, but that by itself would not be enough — we have had our fill of absorbent writers over the years. What Jones adds to it (besides impressive and easy-to-miss gifts for construction and process descriptions) is that rarest of blessings or curses, a private obsession that picks up echoes elsewhere, an obsession of public value.
This quasi-prophetic gift enabled him to write a first-rate book about World War II which was not even about World War II: From Here to Eternity was concerned with small-time brutality in the peacetime army, yet it said more about the war than all the painstaking combat novels put together. Then when Jones got on to the war itself, in The Thin Red Line, his crazy gift produced a universal book about the texture of war everywhere.
Thus, any book he writes, even an apparently trashy one, must be approached with respectful caution. We want to know if his obsession is still in working order, and whether it can ever be harnessed to peaceful use. So far, his peace-writing has kept one foot stubbornly in the war, but in this perhaps he still carries his generation with him. In any event, his books must be read all of a piece.
GO TO THE: WIDOW-MAKER only makes sense if we read it as the further adventures of the Jones enlisted man who began life in From Here to Eternity and was forged and twisted into adulthood in The Thin Red Line. Let us suppose that one of these worthies, sprawled on his bunk at Pearl, has just been handed his discharge papers and a check for a million dollars — possibly for a bestselling novel that he has pecked out in his spare time.
What does he do first? Well, he drinks and screws himself insensible, of course, this being his professional reaction to money. But when he comes to, there is the million dollars still standing there with hardly a dent in it. The money is banked, he is chained to it. So the Jones man starts on his travels. Hung over and neurasthenic from combat, he makes a stern effort to pull himself together. What do you do with civilian life anyway? What is it for? The trouble is that his chief experience of it up to now has been in the form of military leave — anonymous hell-raising with faceless girls in nameless hotels. This he will keep slipping back into with relief, treating whatever town he happens to be in like occupied territory; but there is no army to return to now, no frame to his debauchery, and no justification for it. An endless shore leave is a pretty fair version of hell. But what else is there to do?
The Jones man is essentially a vagrant, which means that his life has been a compound of freedom and feckless dependency. The army is the ideal nest for him, a place where he can wave his finger at authority and lean on it at the same time. In civilian life, he can still wave a finger at “them,” and there is a lot of vague talk in the later Jones about the statesmen and politicians and the people who are running everything, but it is just talk now. His problem is too much freedom, not too little, and how to get through the day on his own devices.
In the turgid pages of Some Came Running he manages to find fault with every segment of society that might possibly help him to pass the time, including the writing fraternity and the returnedenlisted-man fraternity, his two natural sanctuaries. He also despises the bourgeois ascendancy, which leaves him no place much to go except the local saloon. He doesn’t need a job, and for reasons which may become clear as we go along, he isn’t looking for a wife and family. So those obvious points of connection are also bypassed.
In fact, the only social unit of any use to him is the local schoolteacher, Miss Guinevere French, a thirty-five-year-old virgin, whom he characteristically takes for a nymphomaniac. Guinevere represents “class” and authority, and it becomes his ambition to debauch her and master the civilian community that way; rather like Sergeant Warden, evening scores with the officer class via cuckoldry, in From Here to Eternity.
In the end, the mother-virgin eludes him, and his problem goes unsolved. He doesn’t get rolled, he gets himself arbitrarily shot — a classic release from the toils of freedom. But the Jones man doesn’t really die: the death is a fake, a stage shooting. He turns up again immediately in the form of one of Guinevere’s pupils named Wally Dennis, who finds his way into a Korean foxhole. Yet even this doesn’t quite satisfy: because we sense that with a million dollars in his pocket, the Jones man wasn’t going to join no war and have his ass shot off.
Go to the Widow-Maker, his second civilian novel, offers a more likely solution. In this, the Jones man has reconstructed a military situation for himself which permits him to remain a vagrant. He has put himself in the hands of a patroness called Carol Abernathy, who runs his life for him, browbeating him like a sergeant and permitting him the occasional severely limited spree, or leave: performing, by the by, the part of the traditional American wife and mother, steering her boy through the complexities of civilian life and giving him something to rail at impotently.
As Go to the Widow-Maker opens, the Jones man is attempting to get his discharge from this woman, and thus indirectly to rid himself of the last vestiges of the war, for which Carol Abernathy has been surrogate. He is now Ron Grant, America’s greatest living playwright, but he has never engaged society firsthand. Mrs. Abernathy runs a tight little seminary for celebrity-writers, celebrityclerics, and Ron Grant has been a model pupil. Mrs. Abernathy’s hold on Grant would be quite incomprehensible if we had nothing to go on but this book. She is presented as a hysterical shrew with failing powers, too repulsive even for pity. After fourteen years, Grant has found nothing to like about her; in fact, he has found out nothing about her at all. For a great playwright, his reading of this woman’s character is astoundingly superficial.
Hence, the drama of his break with her is no drama at all. He seems to be writhing in invisible chains—why doesn’t he just walk out? Jones throws in some movie-nightmare stuff about Carol Abernathy dressed as death, visiting him in sleep, but this doesn’t seem to help; like so much in the book, it is half-baked, arbitrary. Or—Jones’s new vice — literary.
The real bones of the novel must be dug for in the earlier books. Grant doesn’t just walk out on his patroness any more than Prewitt just walked out on the army. One of the dominant themes in From Here to Eternity is the horrid fascination with re-enlistment, with becoming a thirty-year man. The characters hate the army with every ounce of their strength, and yet contrive ways to be trapped by it — like Grant tying up his money with Mrs. Abernathy. The Jones man does not change his style easily.
And was Carol Abernathy, the authority-woman, always such a bitch? There is reason to guess that she once showed a fair face like a recruiting poster; for surely she is related to Gwen French, the virginal schoolteacher in S.C.R., who attracted the Jones man so powerfully when he first got back to America. Carol Abernathy has gone the Fiedler route from virgin to bitch, and Grant can, of course, no longer remember the virgin part at all. Yet even here he shows his old tendency to re-enlist: for his escape from Carol Abernathy is taken in the Widow-Maker by way of a new girl who shows, by her moodiness and incipient hysteria, every sign of becoming another Carol Abernathy herself.
If there were any sign at all that Jones knew what he was doing, this might be quite a useful theme. But the book is written in a spirit of misguided triumphalism, as if the Jones man had really come to the end of his travels. The new girl, one Lucky Vivendi, is apotheosized in the text as something between Sophia Loren and Bernard Shaw — her “sophisticated wit” always has the table in a roar (although the few samples sound more like Marjorie Main than anyone else); her beauty is inventoried endlessly, and everyone she meets is reduced to a simpering pulp by it.
Jones says in an introductory note that he is trying to tell a beautiful love story. But the Jones man has as much trouble with women as with any aspect of civilian life. Outside of an ecstatic enumeration of ruttings, and hoarse exclamations of pride over her peerless beauty, he doesn’t know what to do with his prize. As in A Farewell to Arms, the love affair is essentially static, as far advanced on the first page as the last. It can only progress, like a P. G. Wodehouse romance, by way of outer mechanisms, the most obvious being jealousy, of which there is a surfeit. The Jones man must always be fretting about whether he has got hold of a whore, partly because, as a foreign soldier on leave, he simply doesn’t know, and partly because he hasn’t learned anything else to judge a woman by. Does she or doesn’t she? is the only question you learn in the barracks, or have time to apply outside. And we know that the void between them will be filled with trouble when, fourteen years on, he understands his new woman as little as he understood his old one.
Part of Lucky’s attractiveness to him is an indefinable “classiness” (totally indefinable to the reader), and this is another old theme of Jones’s which emerges more muddled than ever in this book. Ron Grant is variously described as coming from a good old family and as being a coarsegrained oaf. But what significance Jones attaches to these revelations it is hard to say. A vague and meaningless note of snobbery is struck from time to time as the author addresses himself to the cruder characters. But with what object? The Jones man is now presented as an aristocratic plebeian who has it both ways and neither way. Class is another aspect of the civilian scene that the Jones man doesn’t know what to do with — though, as with marriage and work, he feels he ought to do something.
Again, all this is meaningless outside the larger context. But if we remember that the Jones man was lowered a class by being a soldier and then raised a class by being a celebrity (as it were, by joining the clergy), we understand his concern with the question. One day a bum, the next a lord; but both the demotion and the promotion have occurred outside the normal social structure, so he never really knows what has happened. He only knows that it seems to be important.
To gauge the hero’s complete alienation from social forms, meditate a moment on the following passage. The setting is a party of allegedly sophisticated people which the sophisticated Lucky has graced with her regal attendance: “Now dressed to the teeth with full make-up and a simple sheath dress, and those magnificent tits and that high, back-switching ass below the champagne hair, Lucky had every man in the house breathing hot through his nose and with one hand in his pocket to finger himself tentatively through the cloth.” That must have been some fancy party, boss.
The truth is that the Jones man never stays in one place long enough to get the customs down right. His nonexistent regiment is always leaving, and besides, it always turns out he was too drunk to notice much. To make matters worse, he now goes everywhere as a celebrity, and has grown inured to rather special treatment. When his diving instructor (the occasion for the book is skin diving, and we’ll get around to that in a moment) tells him what a superb, brave pupil he is, he accepts it as his simple due, just as the Emperor Nero might in taking bows at the Olympic Games. When he stays at a hotel whose owner caters only to celebrities, he becomes swiftly smitten by this sleazy little sycophant and regards him at once as a deep true friend. It is not for nothing that Jones is called the Hemingway of the fifties and sixties. In this world of the phony compliment and the padded bill, it would take a sharper or colder eye than the Jones man’s to sort things out.
The parasitic celebrity-world might have made a good theme too (though we’ve been there before) if Jones had known that that was his subject. But as Buckminster Fuller says, a fish is the last one to notice water, and most of these revelations are inadvertent.
WHAT Jones apparently thinks he is writing about is a man’s search for courage in the blue waters of the Caribbean. And this is where the book goes seriously wrong. Not simply because the courage business is once again “literary,” a standard OK “theme,” although it is all of that, but because it leads him at last to a false and uncharacteristic position vis-a-vis his own material.
That Grant is a coward, in the first place, is something we simply have to take on faith. The author keeps telling us that he is one, but is so loath to admit anything really bad about his hero that the cowardice has no moral soil to grow in: it is an isolated freak. Once again, Jones tries to get by with that creaking device, the bad dream — in this case a dream about a big fish! — which he exorcises, of course, by going fishing.
To find what is really eating Grant we must return one last time to The Thin Red Line, where he catalogued every last variety of fear, possibly before closing the book on it forever. Grant’s special brand no doubt reposes there. But by now, he has forgotten all he knew: that courage is accidental, circumstantial, glandular; that you may have it in the morning and lose it in the afternoon; that it may share all the same symptoms as fear, and the same neurotic base—all this exquisite sophistication in the field has been planed down to a simple pop psychology assertion. Q. Why does a man have to prove his courage? A. Because as a boy he was impressed by the size of his father’s member. That, for a 600-page book about courage, would have to be called a pretty flat conclusion.
But Grant is beside himself about it and carries on as follows: “I think the whole world is all like that. Russians, Chinese, Americans; Presidents, Prime Ministers, everybody. All of them trying so hard to grow up to Dad’s, Dad’s thing.” So far, barrack-room spitballing. But it gets worse. “So they take refuge in bravery. It becomes important to be brave. It is more important to them to be brave than to be anything. Only by being brave can they be what they think — hope — is manly, a man. No other way. Bravery. That proves they’re men. [Got that?] So they make up games . . Politics, war, football, polo, explorers. Skindiving. Shark-shooting. All to be brave. All to be men.” Over and out.
As a survey of world events, this pretty much defies comment. As I get it, if Daddy had only looked more shrewdly to his buttons, we wouldn’t need politics, exploration, or even polo. Well, OK. You don’t argue with a man like that, you just find another bar.
What is serious in terms of Jones’s development is this sudden about-face regarding the active life in general. The lumping together of war and skin diving might be acceptable from a city-bred intellectual who can’t see without his glasses. But Jones is a sportsman who understands and enjoys the world of violence. He would not write about it so well otherwise. And he knows enough to make distinctions. He knows, for openers, the difference between war and skin diving. He knows in his bones that it is no bad thing for a man to test his courage against nature. He knows also that the pleasure of danger-sports, from skin diving to mountain climbing, is much more subtle and various than a simple testing and retesting of manhood. One might add that the desire to prove one’s courage is far from the universal phenomenon that Jones suggests —most of us would be delighted to escape such tests indefinitely, and can only be forced or goaded into them; Jones knew this when he wrote the T.R.L.
“It’s like they’re [the skin divers] not men. Any of them. They’re small boys playing that they’re men.” This is the schoolmarm talking, not the real Jones man. He has been sold a bill of goods about sports, maturity, and so forth, but it sits ill with him. After all, his creator has just written a long book glorifying the hunting of fish, and it is morally phony for him to disown this pastime completely on the last few pages. Jones himself must know that he doesn’t write so well about gentler pursuits: he owes some loyalty to his best material. So Grant just mumbles this stuff about polo — it isn’t a Jones truth, and there isn’t much he can do with it, but he does the best he can.
Actually, the healthiest things that happen in the book are the ones that take place underwater. Jones tries to draw a ham-handed parallel between the killing of fish and the predatoriness of people on land, but it doesn’t work. The sea behavior may be disapproved on principle, but in execution it is brave, cooperative, a full use of one’s powers; the land behavior is idle, mischievous, degenerative.
The trouble is that Lucky Vivendi disapproves of the sea behavior; and in submitting his soul to a new authority, the Jones man has no recourse but to bend his will on the point, for the time being at least. Lucky, however, is not altogether a real person; she is also a well-thumbed copy of Love and Death in the American Novel by Leslie Fiedler or some other psycholiterary text.
For Jones has always been the quintessential specimen of Fiedler’s thesis: he is lyrical about male companionship and always sourly grateful to escape to it; his women arc whores or saints, and in neither case is a real relationship with them possible; and violence and death still constitute the best lay of all. The suspended sexuality and banked-up sadism of the soldier make the perfect paradigm of Fiedler’s American novelist. In Go to the WidowMaker, Jones is trying most energetically to shake this role.
He may or may not have read Fiedler’s intimidating book; but he can hardly have escaped its influence, any more than any other American novelist can. At least Lucky Vivendi seems to have read it, for she calls Grant a half-fag every time he goes out with the boys, until she has him saying it too, and she is suitably baleful about violence and death as rivals.
She herself could have been constructed with half an eye on Fiedler, for she is neither a virgin nor a whore, but a good-bad girl, or adult. Jones seems unaware as yet that an adult relationship can transcend these categories altogether. But he is aware of all too many other things. Jones is what Fiedler calls a mythopoeic writer, and the era of selfconsciousness has played bob with mythopoeic writers. Jones cannot be himself right now. His natural story, the one that he tells in spite of himself, would play right into the Fiedlerians’ hands: so he has to tell it “knowingly” and twist it when necessary.
Essentially Carol Abernathy is the virgin gone rancid on a pedestal, and Lucky Vivendi is her replacement. The Jones man is more at home with the boys, and he does equate sex with death. Jones knows this — he even has Grant’s courage increase after a sexual falling out with Lucky — but he keeps trying to manipulate his story to make it look like a cure. He makes Lucky into a grown-up woman who will rescue Grant; he turns “the boys" into bisexual birds of prey, the easier for Grant to become disenchanted with them; and finally, falsest note of all, he has Grant himself denounce fishing, war, and polo!
In all this, Jones seems to be trying to accommodate himself to alien values, and to ignore his own insights into things like courage and violence and comradeship, concerning which he probably still
has something to tell us — although possibly not through the mouth of a celebrity skin diver. (It would help if he would learn to be less suggestible.) The things that the Jones man learned in his earlier adventures are not without value, and should not be overturned by every schoolmarm, real or imaginary, who comes along. We certainly don’t look to him for a rehash of popular Freudianism.
It is tempting to equate Jones himself with the Jones man, and his slovenliness in leaving similarities lying about adds to the temptation. (But there is no law against making metaphors out of your own experience to see how they work, and there is also no reason to suppose that Jones hasn’t done just this.) But at the moment he seems to have lost a grip on what is really happening to his hero, seems not to realize the implications of what he is saying. The result is a noxious kind of wish-thinking which, combined with that prose and his embryonic powers of social observation, makes a pretty rich mess.
With any other writer, such a book would constitute an unpromising set of entrails for next time. But with Jones, who knows? It seems a miracle any time he writes a good book; and yet, he has already written two of them, and how many post-war writers can match that claim? The Jones man remains a valid creation, a child of the thirties and of the war fumbling through the fifties and sixties, and Jones can’t help telling a certain amount of truth about him.
The danger right now is that the Jones man finds himself with less to say and to fewer people. His vagrant romanticism and his bulging wallet make him rather a special case anyway, but not without interest: what hurts is that his roots in World War II are beginning to look quaint. His abstention from regular civil life, from child-rearing and job promotions on the one hand, or relevant opposition to these on the other, has kept him stuck in the past, and this cuts him off finally even from his own generation. He doesn’t belong in the American sixties either in the role of parent or of rebel.
Readers cannot be asked to trace his behavior to the battlefield indefinitely, or to mope around the Caribbean with him solving problems that they themselves haven’t the time or inclination to cultivate. Those fourteen arrested years in Carol Abernathy’s seminary have made him something of a museum piece, a Pierce Arrow among contemporary fiction characters. So unless James Jones wants to go back to straight war novels (and I can’t see his ambition settling for that), his present task must be to drag his boy all the way into the postwar world and find him something useful, or usefully useless, to do.