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Something About a Soldier

Whistle

by James Jones
Delacorte, 457 pp., $10.95

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 fucking hospital and back into the fucking war. It had just built up in him.

There was no way on earth to explain it to anybody, though. Not without sounding shitty. There was no way to say it.

Here a method that means to be plain and unobtrusive becomes an obtrusion itself. There are indeed states of mind, complex or confused ones, that are hard to put into words, but in the text of a novel, an “it” that means both love and hate, anguish and happiness, looks lame. The passage may reproduce a credible human muddle, but it doesn’t provide any way of examining and understanding it. “There was no way to say it” sounds as true of the author as of Landers.

Nor, if we recall the pungent, closely recorded passages of soldier-talk that provided the major excitement and pleasure of From Here to Eternity, is dialogue in Whistle very remarkable. There’s not much of it, and what there is usually sounds lifeless:

Well,” Winch said reasonably, “it’s either that, or off you go to the stockade immediately.”

Not me,” Landers said. “No, sir. I’m not going to play psycho. Not for you. Not for anybody.”

Well,” Winch said, “there’s not much to doing it.”

I wouldn’t even know how to go about doing it.”

Just act crazy,” Winch said. He was staring at him mildly. His face was wide open, receptive.

Mayhew’s the one who’s crazy, not me,” Landers raged. “Look at the way he came into that outfit, and balled it all up. Antagonizing everybody.”

I agree. But unfortunately we don’t have any way to handle Mayhew,” Winch said. The blandness left his face, and it knotted up. “Listen,” he hissed, “I haven’t mothered you fuckers, and babied you, all this time and all this way, for you to go and get yourself into a sure-death situation. I won’t goddam fucking put up with it. See?”

It’s hard to distinguish between these voices; the author has to explain too much how they sounded and looked. The concluding obscenity sounds less like authentic idiom than like a way of keeping the reader awake.

Unlike From Here to Eternity, Whistle tries to conceal the presence of an impersonal narrator who is verbally more adroit than any of the characters, and Jones has to keep struggling with the problem of believable speech. The first chapter is told by an unnamed member of the company who knows words like “seneschal” and “demiworld,” but although some soldiers (Jones among them) do know such words, the effect evidently felt wrong and we never hear from this voice again. And the major characters, whose minds the novel stays close to until the end, can’t credibly be as articulate as the book sometimes needs them to be.

Again and again Jones stumbles over, and then usually backs away from, his need to say things that his characters could not have thought. Winch at one point uses the word “charisma” (did anyone know the word in 1944?) in thinking about what the army calls “command presence,” whereupon Jones quickly takes cover behind some dirty talk (“And he was supposed to be his own company’s hero. Damn them, damn them, Winch thought suddenly and savagely, God damn them. They weren’t worth the turds to put in a sock and thump them over the head with”). Landers persuades a sympathetic surgeon not to amputate Prell’s leg by describing the others’ concern for him as a mode of capital investment, but in telling Strange of his success he doesn’t mention that metaphor, “which now sounded high-toned and dumb to him.” Sergeant Strange, having shared a couple of Tennessee country girls with one of his cooks, returns “with a feeling that the girls were a mythical impersonation of the spring itself.” In the depths of his pain Prell has something “almost like a—a religious experience. That was the only word Prell could think of to use. He might as easily have said mystical, but mystical was not a word Prell used except in crossword puzzles.”

A curious kind of homogenizing seems to take place in Whistle. Along with their supposed differences in temperament, the characters come from different parts of the country—Winch from New England, Strange from Texas, Prell from West Virginia, Landers from the Middle West. Yet their speech and thought show scarcely a trace of regional accents and idioms. They think alike, they talk alike, they come to similarly dreadful acts of self-destruction. Even their women are almost impossible to distinguish. And, in the book’s most embarrassing blurring of separateness, everyone is fixated on the pleasures of cunnilingus, a subject about which they are, for once, quite eloquent.

This blurring of identities, of course, has a point. Whistle deals with war when the fighting is over. These men have given themselves, not unwillingly, to a condition that demands a unity of purpose, if not of feeling, that makes them be more than they could be individually but leaves them stranded when combat is finished. In being the “company” they were so committed to, they gave up much of their right to identity, as anyone does when he joins the army.

Their homecoming replaces a companionship that had meaning with a merely formal semblance of such mutuality—the stateside army of hospitals and noncombat duty, with all its temptations to self-service, the pursuit of sensual pleasure or the game of money and power that makes the career army so satisfying to warrant officers and top NCOs. Betrayed by wives or parents, unable to make lasting new attachments, bullied or manipulated by the officers who nominally have care of them, these men have only themselves for “family,” and they cling together not so much from affection as from habit, or, as Landers says, from the “investment” they have made in each other as mutual sufferers and survivors.

Whistle is dedicated “to every man who served in the US Armed Forces in World War II,” and it sustains this generously collective note by stressing what the characters have in common—their violent impulses, their hostility to noncombatants, their edgy concern for each other, the conflict between their fear of being killed and their deep, unexaminable need to “stay in,” to keep on soldiering rather than return to a civilian world that doesn’t need or understand them. This is a kind of madness, as Jones tries to show—Winch ends up in a psycho ward after blowing up a jukebox with grenades, and the others avoid such a fate by killing themselves, Prell and Landers ostentatiously, Strange by slipping quietly into the North Atlantic en route to the European Theater.

This fusing of identities in madness should not be dismissed as mere technical ineptness. Maybe the experience of war does challenge our rather complacent belief that the best, most important meanings are personal, private, individual ones, our insistence that collective selfhood is somehow inauthentic. For bookish civilians to try to think otherwise is an interesting exercise, if not a very cheering one. But it remains true that this novel’s two most powerful moments of understanding are private and personal ones, and that both of them are given to the clerkly, introspective Landers and not to the less self-conscious professional soldiers he admires and tries to be like.

The first of these is Landers’s Gulliverian vision of war as the human condition, of a universal madness that battle may articulate but does not cause:

Landers watched as below him in the shallow bowl men roared and shouted and hollered and yelled, ran forward carrying things, ran back carrying things (as often as not other men), fired guns, threw things, struggled and fought. Landers thought only one thought. They were all silly idiots. What did they think they were doing? They were ridiculous…. Good. Good for them. They deserved it. They deserved whatever happened to them. He felt completely acquiescent. But he was outside of it. But being outside went further than just being on the ridge. It extended to his special pet colonel, to his old outfit, to the whole Army, to his entire nation, to the enemy nation—to the whole human race, finally. He was not part of it.

This sense of utter detachment from one’s species governs the best meanings of this novel, though no one else in the novel can see it so plainly as Landers does. It figures in his other and more moving vision, when his hospital ship sights the American coast and he imagines an “unpeopled mysterious blue continent” eternally fixed in its emptiness with an empty ship forever off its shore, never to make its landing. From this perspective, all the soldier’s values as Jones represents them—professional competence, concern for comrades, pride in fighting, drinking, making love—matter only because they don’t finally matter, because one does them freely, without caring or hoping for a return.

When Whistle tries to go beyond this sense that nothing matters in the end, a sense whose language is usually simple and confident, it gets soft and sentimental. We are too often invited to feel more for these soldiers than they would want to feel for themselves, as in the novel’s bathetic ending (supplied by Willie Morris from a tape Jones made before his death), where the drowning Strange imagines that he’s swelling up to oceanic, planetary, even galactic proportions and “taking into himself all of the pain and anguish and sorrow and misery that is the lot of all soldiers, taking it into himself and into the universe as well.”

One hopes that had he lived to revise, Jones would have thought better of this. But there are enough other moments of rhetorical and philosophical inflation, moments that seem too conscious of an audience with literary expectations, to suggest an author who often mistrusted his own understanding of things. This is sad but not decisively so. Jones has surely to be counted as a minor novelist, one with a single subject and a limited control of his craft; but he knew what he knew wonderfully well, and in From Here to Eternity and The Thin Red Line, and intermittently in Whistle, he told us much about how the military life shapes and marks those who follow it. He can’t be blamed for having had larger ambitions too, but these are not what he will be remembered for.

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