Thursday, 5 September 2013

JAMES JONES To The End of the War (2011)

Open Road Media, 2011

By the time the barman brought the glasses, they had warmed up enough to accept the beer without comment. 'To the end of the war,' Johnny said, and they clinked glasses and drank.
  With the taste of the beer bitter in the back of his throat, Johnny watched Wilkinsson.  To the end of the war.  There was no end to the war.  Worse than that, there was no beginning to the war.  The war was not yet begun.  Pearl Harbor was a song in the jukebox.  People praised the Lord and passed the ammunition.  But that was not a war.  The Lord had nothing to do with ammunition or with the war.  The German and the Jap were fighting a war, but the American –– except for a few like Wilkinsson –– only fought, fornicated, and fell back.  They bought their monthly war bond, but there was still no war.

The Novel:  In January 1943 a young US infantry Corporal named James Ramon Jones was struck in the head by a mortar fragment during the campaign to capture the small Pacific island of Guadalcanal from the well entrenched Japanese.  Jones was sent to a field hospital where he remained for a week before rejoining his unit which, after taking the village of Kokumbona, was expected to form part of the invasion force being gathered to attack the nearby enemy held island of New Georgia.

Jones, who had joined the army in 1939, felt his luck had run out now that he'd been wounded and described the feeling to his brother, Jeff, in a letter dated 28 January 1943.  'The guys who are fighting now,' he wrote, 'will have less of a chance of being alive when the war is over than the guys who haven't started fighting yetI've got a sort of hunch that I'm not going to make it.  Partially that comes from seeing how much luck has to do with it and because from now on until the war ends I'll probably be in and out of action all the time.'  Luckily, Jones' prediction proved inaccurate.  An unrelated ankle injury, which he'd sustained while playing football at Schofield Barracks in Hawaii, made it increasingly difficult for him to walk, making him a liability in an infantry outfit where the ability to move, and to do so quickly and efficiently, was essential to its collective survival.  Jones was repatriated to the United States and eventually sent for further treatment to Kennedy General Hospital in Memphis, which is where this posthumously published collection of his interrelated short stories titled To The End of the War begins.

Jones' alter-ego in the book is Johnny Carter, a Corporal with a still-troublesome ankle injury who, like him, is convinced that his luck has run out and has no wish to return to combat so his theory can be tested.  Like Jones, Carter goes AWOL ('Absent Without Leave') after being refused a pass to visit his brother and returns to his hometown, feeling he'll be safer from the MPs in the house of his unsympathetic uncle than he would have been had he stuck to his original plan to visit his brother in Miami.  

What follows, in twelve not always chronologically-linked stories, is a chilling, often disturbing portrait of a physically and psychologically-scarred young veteran trying to understand and move beyond his traumatic battlefield experiences in an America that seems fundamentally altered by a war which few civilians have either truthfully confronted or properly begun to understand.  'Even smug, self-centered, hateful little Endymion was being caught up by the great maelstromIt brought home to Johnny the fact that nowhere in the world anymore, was there a place safe from the invading hatred and blood-lust and bitterness.  He felt somehow that when he came here he could swing into a world from which war and death and army politics were absent, could have a short breather in which he could forget about wearing a uniform and taking orders from some senator's lawyer's son, from the rah-rah ROTC boys who needed a sergeant to always tell them what to do.  He should have known better.'  Being AWOL, facing the continual risk of being arrested and sent back to his unit, is part of the game Johnny plays with himself, his private individual method of defying a system he no longer believes in and has no wish to die defending.  War, he's now come to realize, isn't about patriotism and personal heroics the way it's portrayed in the movies he likes to see only so he can laugh at their unrealistic, ridiculously sentimental plots.  It's about men fighting and dying in the bloodiest, most brutal ways imaginable, often as the result of nothing more 'strategically necessary' than finding themselves in the wrong place at the wrong time with the wrong officer handing out the orders.

Johnny's only refuge from his memories and the horror they continue to inspire is to put them down on paper, which he does in the form of long prose poems which are as harrowing for him to write as they prove, in time, to be therapeutically beneficial and ultimately cathartic.  One of these poems finds its way to a friend of his aunt's – an artistically-minded Endymion resident named Sandy Marion who, along with her husband Eddie, is widely regarded as being the town eccentric.  Unlike the rest of Endymion, Sandy tries to understand Johnny, encouraging him to keep writing because she senses he may possess the power to articulate what so many of the maimed and wounded soldiers she's met, a group which includes her own amputee brother-in-law, are incapable of expressing –– namely, the profound feeling of moral outrage that comes with killing total strangers and knowing they're trying to do the same to you simply because governments and the non-combatant politicians who run them have arranged things that way.  Sandy is sympathetic to Johnny and his need to distance himself from the war by getting drunk, sleeping with as many women as he can seduce, insulting their fellow townsfolk and participating in more than his fair share of bar brawls, accepting that these activities – consciously anti-social though they are are also necessary to him in some inexplicable yet fundamental way, his sole means of releasing the barely submerged fear, anxiety and self-loathing he's been carrying round inside him, unrelieved, since fleeing from the army.  Nor does Sandy advise him to return to the army, understanding –– as the GI doctors who treated him in Memphis did not –– that he's in no fit condition to play any further part in the war. 

Eventually Johnny is confronted by his uncle, who neither condones nor understands his behavior and threatens to put him on the next train back to Tennessee.  Johnny tells him to go to hell, insisting that no one, uncle or otherwise, can send him anywhere he doesn't want to go.  He returns to the army the next day, reporting in to his new unit as he should have done weeks ago.  He's immediately busted down to Private by his former Commanding Officer and given the humiliating job of latrine orderly, his exemplary combat record the only thing that spares him the further humiliation of a court-martial.  

In time, Johnny becomes crucial to the smooth running of his new outfit, his combat experience earning him the respect of his fellow misfits and making him an ideal, highly effective company clerk.  He takes pride in his work and begins to put at least some of the past behind – a respite cut short by the army's pointless victimizing of his new Commanding Officer, a sympathetic Jewish Lieutenant named Weidmann who's replaced by a Gentile officer named Dupree –– a man who wastes no time ingratiating himself with the men he's now responsible for by handing out furloughs to virtually everyone besides his hardworking and understandably resentful company clerk.  This proves to be the final straw for Johnny.  One night he goes AWOL again, thumbing a ride back north to Endymion and a far from certain future as a two-time deserter.

To The End of the War was not published in its present form during Jones' lifetime.  It's a selectively edited version of his first unpublished novel They Shall Inherit The Laughter (1944-1948) and, as such, lacks the cohesion and polish one might expect of a truly 'finished' work of art.  Nevertheless, it provides a fascinating glimpse into Jones' wartime experiences and into the mindset of the writer who would shortly go on to write From Here To Eternity (1951) – a book considered by many, critics and readers alike, to be one of American literature's authentic post-war masterpiecesAlthough Jones eventually revised and rewrote most of this unpublished material –– using it to much better effect in later novels like Some Came Running (1958) and Whistle (1978) the stories contained in To The End of the War stand up surprisingly well as stories in their own right, serving as valuable reminders of what a severe physical and emotional toll combat takes on the ordinary, rifle-toting foot soldier.  Sadly, as Jones' editor George Hendrick notes in his preface to the first story in the collection 'Little has changed since 1944: the Walter Reed Medical Center scandal, the repeated deployments [of US and other Coalition troops to Iraq and Afghanistan], the refusal to give benefits to some wounded men and women, and the need for wartime cannon fodder, even if the soldier is not physically fit.'  Jones, I'm certain, would have been appalled by all of this and very rightly so.  Unfortunately, it's difficult to imagine any aspect of it coming as any kind of shock to him.  

The Writer (1921-1944):  As an older man, James Jones liked to joke that he was 'always an aristocrat –– on three sides.'  The claim was not an entirely fanciful one.  At least one of his maternal English ancestors had arrived in America as early as 1620, while his father's Irish family had been living in the small southern Illinois town of Robinson since 1815, having made their way there from Virginia by way of Ohio when Native Americans still outnumbered white settlers in that part of the country by at least four to oneThe Jones' were a sturdy farming family who believed it was their solemn moral duty to improve and socially elevate themselves.  Jones' grandfather, an autocratic God-fearing Methodist named George W Jones, was considered by everyone to be one of Robinson's leading citizens – a lawyer and former Sheriff of Crawford County, an author (of a 1922 book which argued the point that the Romans had broken their own laws by prosecuting and executing Jesus Christ), a successful investor in the burgeoning Ohio Oil Company and the owner of a luxurious 'southern-style mansion' on West Main Street which was deemed to be only slightly less imposing than the town's ornate Romanesque court house. 

George W Jones and his wife Euphemia Bales, a fellow Sheriff's daughter from Indiana, produced four sons named Paul, Charles, Ramon and Hanby prior to Euphemia's early death in (or around) 1894.  Determined that his sons should follow in his footsteps and become respected professional men and pillars of the community as he himself had become, George Jones decreed that his two eldest boys would attend Northwestern University to study law while the younger boys would eventually be enrolled in the School of Medicine at the same institution.  Paul and Charles did become lawyers, while Ramon, who would have liked to study law as well, eventually persuaded his father to let him study dentistry in preference to medicine –– a shorter degree that would allow him to marry his sweetheart, the town beauty Ada Blessing, that much sooner.  The youngest brother, Hanby, committed suicide rather than submit to his father's tyrannical will –– a will which saw all three of his surviving brothers turn to alcohol as a means of soothing the pain that being robbed of their personal autonomy had inflicted on them.  It's not insignificant that much of James Jones' best work as a novelist deals with individuals in conflict with an oppressive system –– the army –– whose inherent brutality they feel they can fight only by refusing to give it their full unstinting cooperation.  The grandson of a bully, he grew up seeing for himself the damage his grandfather's despotism had wreaked on the lives of his father and uncles.

Ramon Jones, known as 'Doctor Ray' to his patients, married Ada Blessing in July 1908.  In 1910 their first child – named George W Jones after his grandfather but commonly known as 'Jeff' –– was born.  Although the couple tried to produce more children after Ada suffered a miscarriage during her second pregnancy, they did not succeed in doing so until 6 November 1921, when their second son, James Ramon, was born –– the result, his Christian Scientist mother quickly convinced herself, of God personally intervening on her behalf to make her barren womb fruitful again.  A daughter, Mary Ann, joined the family in 1925.

Jones was disliked by his mother, who made no secret of the fact that she had hoped he'd be a girl.  She was, he later remembered, 'totally selfish, totally self-centered, and totally whining and full of self-pity.'  She occasionally beat him in front of their neighbors and routinely chained him to a stake in the backyard of their comfortable Walnut Street home so he couldn't wander off while she attended to her chores.  Jones naturally felt closer to his father, a big amiable ex-college football star who, over time, came to feel increasingly embittered by his wife's continual nagging and the failure of his career.  (He had never wanted to be a dentist and Robinson was too small to allow him to practice what had, by then, become his specialty, orthodontic surgery –– disappointments which no doubt contributed to his habitual heavy drinking.)  Ramon Jones taught his gentle, bespectacled, soft-spoken second son how to box, mercilessly knocking him down time and time again in the belief that doing so would inevitably toughen him up.  He also introduced young Jimmy to what soon became a welcome respite from the shared misery of their home life –– the vast and very private world of books.  Ramon Jones was a poet of sorts and always kept a lot of books around the house and it was only natural that his son would turn to them as a means of escaping, if only temporarily, from what was a severely repressive, emotionally crippling home environment.  He became a frequent visitor to Robinson's Carnegie Library, where he quickly read his way through every book in its ground floor children's section before persuading the librarian to let him read the authors –– Dickens, Kipling, Conrad, Guy de Maupassant and W Somerset Maugham among them –– whose work was housed upstairs in its adult section.

Jones' home life was not made easier by the death of his grandfather in the summer of 1929.  This was also the year the Great Depression began and the Jones family fortune suffered accordingly.  Most of the family money had been invested in the Insull Utilities Company in Chicago which, after managing to weather the worst of the country's financial storms for a time, finally went under just a few months after the October Wall Street crash, taking every one of its mostly middle class investors with it.  Ramon was able to keep his dental practice open but it soon became unprofitable as his patients, unable to pay his fees, gradually stopped seeking treatment from him.  He was forced to sell the house on Walnut Street, moving his family first to a rented house on nearby King Street and then to an even shabbier property on Ash Street, opposite the railroad tracks.  This unforeseen loss of their social and financial status had a lasting impact on the marriage of Ramon and Ada, worsening what had now become a relationship defined by mutual suspicion and even outright hatred.  The undisguised animosity they displayed towards each other profoundly affected their younger son, who became secretive and angry and soon adopted the habit of fighting anyone who crossed him.  Lonely and starved for affection, he made crazy plans to run away and join the French Foreign Legion as soon as he was old enough to strike out on his own.  His father's drinking worsened, as did his mother's nagging, and by 1935 he was working part-time as a newspaper delivery boy to help support his dysfunctional and rapidly disintegrating family.

Jones' attitude to life did not improve during his high school years.  If anything, his behavior worsened throughout adolescence, becoming more violent and more anti-social –– his method of hiding his loneliness and still frowned-upon sensitivity.  He found school boring and, having worn glasses for most of his life, often claimed he had trouble seeing the blackboard during his classes.  Wearing glasses didn't prevent him from getting into fights or hurt his chances of being accepted as one of their own by the town's rollicking collection of misfits, outcasts and troublemakers.  He continued to fight and generally make a nuisance of himself, pulling silly pranks like throwing firecrackers into the stove at local teenage hang-outs like Zook's Nook in order to draw attention to himself –– attention consistently denied him at home unless he agreed to do his mother's bidding and spy on his father for her.  Graduation couldn't come quickly enough and, with the Depression beginning to ease a little if still a long way from being over, the prospect of going to college as his father had done was one his cash-strapped parents were in no position to consider.  After a brief stint working as a laborer on a construction gang – a job found for him by Jeff –– he decided to make a clean break with Robinson and the past by joining the Army Air Corps, precursor to today's US Air Force.  He left Robinson to report to Chanute Field in nearby Rantoul in November 1939, wondering if he would ever see any of his family again as he stood in the train's observation car waving them goodbye.

The new recruit found life as an Air Corps Private nearly as restrictive as the dull purposeless life in Illinois he had enlisted specifically to escape.  He resented having to mow lawns and take orders from men he deemed to be his social and intellectual inferiors and received a bad scare when he thought – mistakenly, as it turned out –– that he'd contracted gonorrhea from a girl he'd slept with back in Robinson.  After the usual period of basic training, followed by two long and very uncomfortable sea voyages, he found himself stationed at Wheeler Field on the island of Oahu in what was then the pre-statehood Territory of Hawaii.  Jones was as lonely and bored in Hawaii as he had been on the mainland and disliked being a member of what was perceived, by many American soldiers, as being the 'faggot branch' of their nation's armed forces.  Disqualified from flying due to his poor eyesight –– the only thing that might have made life in the Air Corps bearable –– he was assigned instead to clerical school.  'I didn't join the army to be a clerk, sure as hell,' he wrote disgustedly to his brother in 1940.  Determined to get out, he asked for a transfer to the Infantry –– an unheard of request, eventually granted in September 1940, which saw him join F Company of the 27th Infantry Regiment stationed at Schofield Barracks.  

It was while Jones was serving in Hawaii, drilling with his fellow infantrymen for hours every day in the hot tropical sun and unsuccessfully trying out for its boxing and football teams, that he first stumbled upon the work of Thomas Wolfe.  Reading Wolfe's debut 1929 novel Look Homeward, Angel proved to be a life changing experience for him.  From the moment he started reading the book, he later told an interviewer, he knew that he 'had been a writer all my life without knowing it or having written.'  He dreamed of becoming a published novelist, writing to his brother that failing to achieve this ambition would 'crack my brain and rend my heart asunder.'  Soon he was working on sketches, based on his childhood in Robinson and what he was seeing and experiencing in the army, that he would send home to Jeff and his father for their comments and approval.  Finding time to write was difficult for a serving full-time soldier, but became slightly easier to do when he found himself promoted to Private First Class and given the sought-after job of waiter at the Schofield Officer's Club.

JAMES JONES on duty in Hawaii, 1940
In April 1941 Jones received a letter from his father, informing him that Ada Jones had died of congestive heart failure on 2 March.  Although he did not love his mother and did not mourn her death (he scathingly described her as 'a pig' to one journalist he spoke to in later life), he reacted to the news by getting drunk for three days and visiting several Honolulu whorehouses (where he claimed he did not have sex with the prostitutes he encountered there for fear he might genuinely contract gonorrhea from them).  He channeled his despair and sexual frustration into his writing, which was becoming more and more important to him as time went on, although his doubts about his newly-chosen career remained as strong as ever.  'I'm working in the dark all the time,' he confided to his brother.  'Whenever I do write something, that black, forbidding doubt is in me, making me wonder if I'm just some damn egotistical fool, or if I really have that spark of genius it takes to be a really great author like Wolfe. 

The question of his future as a writer was indefinitely put on hold by the Japanese high command's decision to bomb the US Naval Base at Pearl Harbor on 7 December 1941.  Jones was at Schofield Barracks on the Sunday morning the attack began, making him the only major American novelist who personally witnessed the attack and survived to tell the tale.  For the next few months he had little time to think of anything but the war and the job his unit had been given of fortifying and guarding Oahu's undefended beaches.  In March 1942, still stationed in Hawaii, he received word that his father had committed suicide, shooting himself in the head three times while sitting in his dentist's chair (where he was discovered, later that same afternoon, by his distraught sixteen year old daughter)Jones was immensely saddened by the news of his father's death, but admired him, he said, for having had the guts to end his life the way he had.  His death also reinforced his son's desire to become a writer and 'leave behind something that was of a semi-permanent nature.'  

Jones moved one step closer to fulfilling this ambition when the army, resettling into something like its normal routine following the navy's routing of the Japanese fleet at the Battle of Midway, gave him permission to attend a part-time writing course at the University of Hawaii.  His talent, though raw and untutored, was immediately recognized by his instructors, who saw him as a student of exceptional if somewhat unorthodox promise who, they felt, might one day go on to produce a truly great American novel.

Jones' respite from the rigors of life in the wartime army soon came to an end.  The 27th Infantry Regiment was ordered to hand over the guarding of Oahu's beaches to fresh troops newly arrived from the mainland and sent back to barracks to receive further training.  On 6 December 1942 it left Hawaii on severely overcrowded troopships that would, after stopping briefly in Fiji to take on supplies, land it twenty-four days later on the small Melanesian island of Guadalcanal.  Jones' outfit was part of the Allied invasion force which attacked the dug in Japanese on (or around) 10 January 1943.  He was struck in the head by flying mortar fragments and evacuated to the field hospital the next day, where he remained until 21 January, when he was pronounced medically fit to rejoin his unit.  

It was not long after returning to his unit, while on duty in its command post, that Jones experienced what was to be his final undoing as a soldier.  Going into the jungle to defecate, he was surprised by a lone Japanese infantryman.  The enemy soldier attacked him with his bayonet while he sat squatting in the undergrowth with his pants bunched around his ankles, forcing him in effect to kill or be killed.  When their long and very savage fight was over, and the already wounded enemy soldier had finally been disposed of, Jones searched the dead man's pockets, finding his wallet with pictures of his family and girlfriend tucked inside it.  After that, Jones returned to the command post and told his Company Commander that he would never fight again.  It was not cowardice which made him say this –– he had already been awarded the Purple Heart and the Bronze Star for bravery under fire –– but the inescapable belief that his luck had finally run out.

On 15 March, after falling over in front of a Sergeant who immediately ordered him to report in sick, he arrived at the island's divisional hospital, complaining of trouble with his football-injured ankle, which re-dislocated itself any time he tried to walk more than a few yards on it.  The attending surgeon told him he should never have been assigned to the infantry and sent him to New Zealand and then on to Kennedy General Hospital in Memphis, where he remained – eagerly participating in the wild drunken orgies his fellow ambulatory wounded threw themselves in plush downtown hotels like The Peabody and The Gayoso –– until he went AWOL in November after being informed that he was now considered fit enough to be returned to active duty. 

Jones went back to Robinson, where he stayed in the family mansion that was now the property of his unsympathetic Uncle Charles and more sympathetic Aunt Sadie.  It was Sadie who introduced him to Lowney (pronounced 'Lony' to rhyme with 'pony') Handy –– a local woman interested in writing, philosophy and eastern mysticism whose home on Mulberry Street, which she shared with her oil company executive husband Harry, had become something of a refuge for lost, artistically-minded souls like himself.  Jones immediately began an affair with Lowney Handy, who seemed to have no trouble fulfilling his long-denied needs for sexual release and maternal approval and proved just as eager to do whatever she could to help improve his writing.  He stayed in Robinson for three days, then returned to his post at Camp Campbell in Kentucky, where he was immediately busted from Corporal down to Private.  It was around this time that he began to work in earnest on what was to become his first novel, based on his experiences in and out of the war, which he would eventually call They Shall Inherit The Laughter.  

He was still writing the book, working on it mostly at night because he'd now been promoted to Sergeant and had to serve as company clerk during the day, when he deserted for the second time following the replacement of his Jewish CO with a brash obnoxious Gentile officer who appeared to harbor some sort of unmotivated personal grudge against him.  This time, instead of going to Robinson, the AWOL Jones went to Indianapolis to stay with a friend.  It was Lowney Handy who persuaded him to return to the Army which, after detaining him in the stockade and then in the prison ward of the station hospital for a few weeks, granted him an honorable discharge (on 'psychological grounds') on 6 July 1944.

His first stop, before returning to Robinson to take up the Handy's offer to live with them while he finished writing his novel, was Asheville, North Carolina, the mythologized hometown of his hero Thomas Wolfe.  He was twenty-two years old and had nothing but the Handys, his Army disability pay and his urgent if still unrealized ambition to succeed as a writer to sustain him.    

Click HERE to visit the JAMES JONES page at Open Road Media where you can read more about his work and watch a short video about his life and literary legacy.  To The End of the War and most of his other novels can be purchased as downloadable eBooks or as regular print-on-demand books from Open Road Media, your local bookstore or your favorite online retailer. 

You can also click HERE to watch a 3 part, 30 minute 1967 documentary by ALLEN KING and PETER MOSELEY titled The Private World of James Jones on YouTube.

You might also enjoy:
THOMAS WOLFE Of Time and the River (1935)
JOHN O'HARA Appointment in Samarra (1934) 

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