War at the Top

James Gould Cozzens
James Gould Cozzens; drawing by David Levine

Out of print since the Fifties, Guard of Honor won a Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 1949, and, though nearly forgotten now, is, I have long thought, the best American novel about the Second World War—Norman Mailer, Irwin Shaw, James Jones, Harry Brown, Joseph Heller, Herman Wouk, John Horne Burns, and John Hersey notwithstanding. It is certainly the best of Cozzens’s thirteen novels, which include the jejune Confusion (1924), published when he was a sophomore novelist-at-the-ready at Harvard; the skilled and increasingly mature trio of The Last Adam (1933), Men and Brethren (1936), and The Just and the Unjust (1942); his pompous and almost unreadable best seller, By Love Possessed (1957); and his last, the moribund Morning Noon and Night (1968).

The Last Adam and Men and Brethren established Cozzens’s concern with the intense and even severe moral testing—in one place, in tightly arranged action, and over a brief time (in accord with the classical unities)—of good, although flawed, men. Without causing undue damage to others or themselves, these men must chart the gray seas between duty and temptation, ease and labor, right and wrong—and trust to luck as well. However, George Bull, the Last Adam, doesn’t altogether fit Cozzens’s notion of the well-tempered, upright man. He is a tough, careless, sixty-seven-year-old doctor—a self-described “horse doctor”—who practices in a small Connecticut town. His faulty diagnosis may have hastened a young boy’s death from peritonitis, and, as the town’s health officer, he is indirectly responsible for a typhoid outbreak, brought on after he had failed to inspect some workmen’s latrines that were draining into the town’s reservoir. The townspeople consider impeaching Bull for the grief he has caused, but he is saved by his thick skin and by a persuasive and ambitious local politician who, though not caring particularly about Bull, believes that keeping him on and quashing the typhoid story in the press are the safest political moves for himself, and for the town as well.

The cynicism of the book is weakened by its ending, a quasi-biblical passage that comes closer to sentimentality than Cozzens, who prided himself on the unsentimentality of his vision, probably was aware of. It is the first of the oracular outbursts that occasionally mar his books. Here Bull’s mistress, Janet Cardmaker, watches him as he sleeps, his feet stretched out before her fire:

There was an immortality about him, she thought; her regard fixed and critical. Something unkillable. Something here when the first man walked erect; here now. The last man would twitch with it when the earth expired. A good greedy vitality, surely the very vitality of the world and the flesh, it survived all blunders and injuries, all attacks and misfortunes, never quite fed full. She shook her head a little, the smile half derisive in contemptuous affection. Her lips parted enough to say: “The old bastard!”

The tested soul…

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