James Jones may have been the last prominent American novelist to suppose that fiction should be a virtually unmediated presentation of life, that material counts for more than craft. Such an idea is hardly a national characteristic, as Defoe, Balzac, and Tolstoy remind us, but it once seemed especially well suited to the American yearning for direct encounters with reality, unobstructed by European social, cultural, or linguistic forms. And if the American writer could not manage stylistic invisibility, he could at least write badly, with a kind of belligerent indifference to grace of form and words—the sort of thing that Hemingway scoffed at in Torrents of Spring.
Certainly the last and most important question one asks of a novel is not How is it done? but What does it know? To this extent Jones struck the right note when he wrote of Whistle, his last and not quite finished novel, that “it will say just about everything I have ever had to say, or will ever have to say, on the human condition of war and what it means to us, as against what we claim it means to us.” But even if Jones was a novelist who aimed for, and often enough achieved, something beyond mastery of technique and style, no assessment of Whistle can avoid saying that it is a very badly written book.
We learn from Jones’s introductory note (dated 1973) that Whistle was conceived some thirty years ago as the final volume of a trilogy on war, along with From Here to Eternity and The Thin Red Line. Though the names of the major characters are slightly altered in each book, they are essentially the same men who in Whistle return wounded or ill from the Solomon Islands campaign to a military hospital in Tennessee. Winch, the tough, cynical top sergeant, suffers from congestive heart failure (the cause of Jones’s own death in 1977); Strange the motherly mess sergeant has a damaged hand; Prell the cocky loner and Landers the college boy turned company clerk have leg wounds. The novel follows their recuperation, their estrangements from wives and families, their excesses with alcohol and sex, their eventual destruction in the world of the stateside army.
Except for Landers, these are not characters who could be expected to be very eloquent or even articulate about what they know and feel, and Jones relies a great deal on explanatory narrative that stands close to their thoughts without purporting to reproduce them verbatim. But even with Landers the method keeps muffling or confusing the consciousness it means to explain to us:
But Landers knew there was something more. Something inside him. Aching to get out. There was something inside him aching to get out, but in a way that only a serious fight or series of serious fights would let it get out. Anguish. Love. And hate. And a kind of fragile, short-lived happiness. Which had to be short-lived, if he was going out of this …