I was excited to begin this From Here to Eternity by James Jones, because I like Pat Conroy and this book is Conroyesque in appearance–a robust octavo with a military motif. Books are like people, and it’s nice to meet someone new, someone different from you. Seven hundred pages, though, isn’t an affirming human experience shared on a subway car. Seven hundred pages is, at best, a dear friend and at worst, a co-worker, the kind who sends you political forwards. If I extend this metaphor any further, I’ll end up like James Jones. Suffice it to say that several pages in, I was worried.
By page six I’d read enough about a soldier named Prewitt, a bugler and boxer and all around badass, to know that I had thrown in my lot with a monstrous Mary Sue. And this Prewitt, a regular army man in Oahu 1941, is not a regular Mary Sue (he’s a Yogi, for one). The thing about Prew, is Prew’s got a code. Basically the code is this: if Prew likes to do it, he mustn’t do it (except for drinking, and sex with his woman’s roommate). Robert E. Lee Prewitt is a complicated man, a heroic anti-hero:
The reason was, [Prew] wanted to be a bugler. Red could play a bugle well because Red was not a bugler. It was really very simple, so simple that he was surprised he had not seen it standing there. He had to leave the Bugle Corps because he was a bugler. Red did not have to leave it. But he had to leave, because he wanted most of all to stay.
I read this and put a post-it in, just to sort of be like, “oh my gawd,” to no one in particular.
So Prew’s this bugler, who’s also a boxer, and he gives up boxing because he punched a feller too hard. Then he gives up bugling, on account of liking it so much, and he transfers to this unit where to get ahead all you need to do is box, or perhaps bugle. And the craven effete officer Holmes is beside himself to have a boxer, for reasons of army politics, but Prew is not boxing for any man. So Prew gets the Treatment.
This I like! This is an effective premise–a battle of wills! (Remember The Chocolate War? That’s actually the young adult version of this novel, but better executed.) Also, Prew’s reason for not boxing, unlike his purported reason for not bugling, is perfectly reasonable; he promised his mother. Around this time we get to the romantic intrigue, and a vibrant picture of barracks life in Hawaii, pre-Pearl Harbor. There are lots of characters, like Milt the Warden, a lovable first Sergeant, and Maggio, the spunky sidekick–the Seth to Prew’s Ryan, if you will–and a whole zany crew. There’s a respectable tension and army brutality and things are humming along, a la The Lords of Discipline. Sometimes I even found myself thinking, “Poor old men. They do have it rough.”
And I was entertained; in spite of, maybe because of, the preponderance of sentiments like “You know what’s weak? Chicks” and “You know what’s the best? Punching.” It’s a yarn and a half, I can honestly say.
But James Jones was trying to do more than entertain, and eventually things get insuperably heavy and sometimes unbearable. In this novel Jones wants to condemn war and celebrate war and condemn men and celebrate men and condemn women and celebrate women. He wants to lay bare the evil of capitalism, uphold the worker and the grunt. He wants to immortalize the army. It’s very clear that he wants to do of it. But that’s a tall order for any novelist, and From Here to Eternity cannot begin to carry these themes.
Nor can Prew, whose seems to have been born from an eery and earnest prophesy of The Big Lebowski (“Sometimes there’s a man… I won’t say a hero, ’cause what’s a hero? But sometimes, there’s a man,” etc.).
Jones’s tenuous command of his medium is another major hindrance. He tells a pretty good story, but my god, he savages the written word:
Here is your Army, America, he sleepily wanted to tell Them, here is your strength, that You have made strong by trying to break, and that You will have to depend on in the times that are coming, whether You like it or not, or want to or not, and no matter how much it may hurt Your pride. And here in Number Two was its cream, sifted and resifted and then sifted again, until all the dry rot had been winnowed out, all the soft spots squeezed out, all the rotting gangrene that all the social columnists were so afraid of excised out, so that only the firm hardy remainder of the most absolute of toughness, that would not only hold its own but would triumph, in a whole world of toughness, was all that was left now.
Suffering shit! It’s a miscegenation of metaphors! The whole novel is like this, ripe for parody–Peter de Vries wrote a great one in 1951.
Jones strains for meaning, yet avoids being held to any particular message by overburdening the story with messages. And he eventually abandons the commitments he makes to pithiness by throwing up his hands to say, “What does anything mean, after all? What are we, anyway?”
Verily we have few answers to these questions; we are good and bad and confused all around. But to end like this is a cop-out from the man who created a tortured bugler, a Wobbly Jesus, and a literal truckload of used sanitary napkins. He went for broke with his saints and symbols, so I expected something, maybe a coherent point of view. Instead I got awful prose and a dismal, unsatisfactory ending, which diminished the fun I’d had during the yarny parts.
From Here to Eternity isn’t a forward-happy co-worker; I can’t go that far. It’s like someone with whom you have a booze-fueled conversation at a party. The conversation starts out great, but you get drunker, and dumber, and it goes on way too long.
Jerome Weeks has published a long, thoughtful essay asking why all the talk about our culture needing a great “9/11 novel.” Don Delillo has this discussion back in the book pages with his new book, Falling Man, though Jonathan Safran Foer’s Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close and Deborah Eisenberg’s collection Twilight of the Superheroes among several others are examples of so-called “9/11 fiction.” Weeks writes:Why do we expect our writers to produce the “Great 9/11 novel” anyway? Has there ever been a “great” Pearl Harbor novel — the event most often compared to the Towers’ collapse? From Here to Eternity is about all that memory can conjure up, and it surely doesn’t qualify as great.I would argue that nearly every serious novel written since 9/11 is a “9/11 novel.” Writers, artists, and filmmakers, consciously or subconsciously, react to the world around them some way, and 9/11, from many angles, is incontrovertibly a part of our world. For example, even Michael Chabon’s The Yiddish Policemen’s Union, which is set in an alternate universe in which a temporary Jewish homeland has been set up in Alaska, is a “9/11 novel” in that it has internalized the post-9/11 sensibilities of shadowy government meddling in the Middle East and the feeling of an impending global and religiously motivated conflict. To expect a novel to explicitly place 9/11 into a context that offers us all some greater understanding of it is to misunderstand how fiction works, as Jerome Weeks implies. What we are really looking for (as ever) is a defining novel of our time.