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 in Men and Brethren is Ernest Cudlipp, the middle-aged vicar of St. Ambrose’s, an Episcopal church in the east Sixties in New York. During a hot summer weekend, Cudlipp who, like George Bull, meets the demands of God and man as he sees fit, pushes his way through a mass of problems. A young married woman, pregnant by a poet whom Cudlipp has befriended, is pressured by Cudlipp to have an abortion in order to protect herself. When a bitter homosexual Episcopal monk is caught propositioning an undercover cop and decides to leave his monastery, he is put up by Cudlipp, whom the monk both envies and hates for his own tangled reasons. But then he pulls on his hair shirt, refuses Cudlipp’s offer of a loan, and walks back to his monastery outside the city, prepared to face charges. At the end of the weekend, Cudlipp, celibate by choice, begins to suspect that an old friend, a married actress, may be in love with him and that, fond as he is of her, he had better curtail the relationship. He also learns that his bishop is doubly displeased with him: not only has he asked a rabbi to preach at St. Ambrose, but he has broken canonical law by inviting the disgraced monk to stay with him.
Men and Brethren is not thoroughly worked out. It is hard-nosed and elliptical, and floats more questions than it answers—about the narrowness of the Episcopal Church, about the diminishing strength of WASPs like Cudlipp and the monk, about Cozzens’s own tartness and impatience. But it is a creditable New York novel.
The Just and the Unjust is the first of Cozzens’s novels to display his gifts as a realist who belonged with Henry Roth and John O’Hara and Jerome Weidman. It was already clear that he was not a graceful writer, but he developed a sharp eye for faces and figures and the way people move, a good ear for dialogue, particularly of the jocular, sardonic kind, an easy, exact sense of place, and, driving these attributes, a powerful moral sense, a hatred of cant, and the ability to digest enormous amounts of institutional information and shape it into drama.
The Just and the Unjust is built around a three-day murder trial held in June of 1939 in a small town somewhere outside New York City. Abner Coates, a lawyer in his thirties, is an assistant district attorney and the son and grandson of distinguished local judges. He helps to prosecute two men who have been accomplices in the kidnapping and killing of a drug dealer, but the trial does not turn out the way he and the district attorney, Martin Bunting, had planned: a muddled local jury brings in a verdict of second—rather than first—degree murder, which means that instead of the electric chair the pair will be on the loose again after relatively short prison sentences.
Coates is also facing the imminent death of his father, Judge Coates, who has been crippled by a stroke, and the possible disaffection of his girlfriend, a bright and attractive cousin several times removed whom he has known most of his life. He must also decide, when Bunting steps down, whether he is going to run for district attorney under the aegis of a politician he cannot stand, largely because the politician, who runs the Republican machine in Abner’s county, is a highly skilled, therefore seemingly shady, manipulator.
He works these various problems out, or, more often, they work themselves out. He decides to run for district attorney knowing that he may be compromised, and he proposes to his girl. What Cozzens has carried off is among the most difficult of novelistic feats—a convincing portrait of a dull, honorable, rather obtuse man. He even manages to make the slow, stubborn backing and filling that goes on inside Abner’s head seem almost adventurous.
The Just and the Unjust is also a good study of pre-mall small-town life, with its portraits of the local ice cream maker, a crazy old justice of the peace, the manipulative local politician, two very different presiding judges, the sleazy, pockmarked murderers, and the various survivors of Abner’s thinning small-town upper class. But the book closes with another ringing Cozzens valedictory, one that calls for strings and timpani up and under. The wise Judge Coates talks to Abner:
“The world gets up in the morning and is fed and goes to work, in the evening it comes home and is fed again and perhaps has a little amusement and goes to sleep. To make that possible, so much has to be done by so many people that, on the face of it, it is impossible. Well, every day we do it; and every day, come hell, come high water, we’re going to have to go on doing it as well as we can.”
“So it seems,” said Abner.
“Yes, so it seems,” said Judge Coates, “and so it is, and so it will be! And that’s where you come in. That’s all we want of you.”
Abner said, “What do you want of me?”
“We just want you to do the impossible,” Judge Coates said.
Guard of Honor, Cozzens’s eleventh novel, was his masterpiece. It takes place in September of 1943 on a giant Army Air Force base near Ocanara, a resort town in central Florida. Again, the action lasts just three days, and three souls are tested: the commanding officer of the base, Ira N. (Bus) Beal, a flyboy who has already seen combat in the Philippines, Africa, and Europe, and who, at forty, is the youngest two-star general in the Air Force; Colonel Norman Ross, a fifty-nine-year-old former judge in civilian life who, as the Air Inspector, all but runs the base and who, like Judge Coates, is another of Cozzens’s long-suffering, acerbic wise men; and Captain Nathaniel Hicks, a fortyish New York magazine editor in civilian life and a sort of all-seeing observer at the base.
Two incidents frame the novel. In the first, Bus Beal and Lieutenant Colonel Benny Carricker, a flashy pilot and Bus Beal’s right-hand buddy, are about to land their small plane after a routine flight to a neighboring base when a visiting black pilot precipitately puts his B-26 bomber down right in front of them and nearly causes a fatal crash. Carricker charges out of his plane and flattens the pilot, breaking his nose. The incident reverberates throughout the book: other visiting black pilots hear of the attack and, in a gesture of defiance, attempt to enter the segregated officers’ club, and are repulsed by MPs. An accredited black journalist, who has been sent from New York before the incident to write an article on the pilots, is mistakenly thrown off the base. The injured pilot’s father, a waiter in a prominent Washington restaurant, is brought down to the base to see his son, the visit engineered by Lieutenant Edsell, an excitable left-wing agitator and writer. Then a deus ex machina, in the person of General Jo-Jo Nichols, a shrewd and subtle aide to the commanding general of the Air Force, arrives from headquarters in Washington to pin a medal on the injured pilot for having recently saved several planes that encountered dangerous weather on a western training flight, and an uneasy racial peace falls on the base.
The second incident serves as the climax of the book. During a parade and training exercise designed as part of a celebration for Bus Beal’s fortieth birthday, seven heavily equipped paratroopers are mistakenly dropped over a deep lake on the base and drown. The lake’s patrol boat is out of commission, but it becomes clear that it probably wouldn’t have been able to reach them in time anyway.
In Irwin Shaw’s The Young Lions and Norman Mailer’s The Naked and the Dead, we are in the trenches, looking up; in Guard of Honor we are at the top with the generals and colonels, looking down. Shaw and Mailer dealt with GIs, the sacrificial wheels on the war machine; Cozzens deals largely with the drivers of this huge machine. It is a complex and divisive construction made up, on one side, of the sacrosanct regular army and, on the other, of the restless, inexperienced, and often bewildered civilian army.