National Book Award winners, part 6: 1952’s From Here To Eternity, by James Jones.

17 Aug

(In which I read all the previous National Book Award winners, so you don’t have to.)

James Jones might be the strangest winner of the prestigious National Book Award. He’s one cut above a hack. He was a popular success, with two very fine movie adaptations out of Hollywood, but (mostly) a critical failure. His characters are for the most part one-note and nasty. He’s sour, unsophisticated and blunt. He’s sexist and racist. Worse, he can’t write. His sentences are murky. His thoughts are hazy. He seems bewildered by basic grammar.

Full disclosure: I couldn’t get through it. I didn’t even get close. Worse, I’ve tried to read it before.

But let me say unequivocally: Eternity is a bad book. It doesn’t belong on the top 100 novels of any century, much less the 20th. It’s a confounding, bizarre anomaly in the history of American letters.

There’s a long tradition in popular fiction for big, broad novels with a large cast of characters. Sometimes these are great; The Naked and the Dead is probably Norman Mailer’s best novel. Often these big novels are boilerplate, forgettable, tolerable only if the reader relaxes his/her standards and gives in to the story. Big, epic novels tend to stay pretty close to a familiar formula: linear, cinematic and chronological, with flashbacks to seminal events in the lives of the characters. Eternity follows the formula. The writing is in the third person. Jones seems less central to the story, more of a guide.

A nifty cover that makes the book look great; it isn't.

A nifty cover that makes the book look great; it isn’t.

And he has an axe to grind. Eternity isn’t about heroes, sacrifice, or valor. It’s about selfishness, boredom, and cruelty with plenty of raunchy sex thrown in for good measure. Jones’s tastelessness and his anger shine through. The hypocrisy of American society rankles Jones on page after page. Here’s an example, where a soldier looks at a photograph of a pinup girl while sitting in his tiny room:

All right, he thought, okay; if that’s the way it is; a savagery of anger in him now at the pictures. They call them “pin-up girls” and think it’s cute how “our boys,” now that they’re drafted, love to hang them in their wall lockers. And then close up all the whorehouses, every place they can, so our young men will not be contaminated.

Here are the men of war at peace. And they are miserable. Jealousy, resentment, and petulance percolate in the chain of command. The main character is a hard-ass named Prew, a stubborn, virile loner. He can bugle, he can pick guitar, he can box, and he can screw. He’s a thinner, less substantial version of that badass, lonesome male hero we seen in so many American novels (and films). Think McMurphy spliced with John McClane, as principled as John Grady Cole and as implacable as Harry Callahan. Like so many of these tough guys, Prew creates most of his own problems. For 850 pages.

A rare instance where the film is better than the book.

A rare instance where the film is better than the book.

I like big books. I like unadorned writing. I like epic stories. I have a place in my heart for the Leon Urises of the world. But I can’t abide bad writing. It’s toxic. It’s exhausting. I despised The Da Vinci Code. I thought The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo was an unreadable mess (although, in all fairness, I finished it). I’m an inveterate snob with peculiar tastes[1]. I would put Jones beneath many of our popular writers now, such as Stephen King or Dan Simmons.

Jones is a sloppy writer, unforgivably so. Here’s an example:

Up until then it had only been himself. Up to then it had been a private wrestle between him and himself. Nobody else much entered into it. After the people came into it he was, of course, a different man. Everything changed and he was no longer the virgin, with the virgin’s right to insist on platonic love.

 

The writing goes on and on like this. Sentences that don’t go anywhere, clunkers in every paragraph, misplaced adverbs, weak descriptions, a distinct lack of any type of strong editing. In a word, it’s a mess. Jones isn’t studied, referenced, or admired. He’s fading into obscurity. So many other writers have tackled the same things with so much more verve, compassion and skill.

Finally, to put Eternity into perspective, it beat out Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea; Bernard Malamud’s The Natural; Steinbeck’s East of Eden; Vonnegut’s Player Piano; and Flannery O’Connor’s Wise Blood. The official nominees included Truman Capote, Thomas Mann, J.D. Salinger (for Catcher in the Rye), and William Styron. He doesn’t deserve to be in the same company as any of them. His brief ascent with Eternity—how he was proclaimed a genius and heralded as some new voice in American fiction—remains one of life’s little mysteries.


[1] If you’ve been following this blog at all, you have an idea what’s those are.

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One Response to “National Book Award winners, part 6: 1952’s From Here To Eternity, by James Jones.”

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. Interlude: Lost in best-of lists, lost and loving it: A semi-formless riff. | simoneandthesilversurfer - October 14, 2013

    […] and too much Faulkner, too many Henry James. (Plus James Jones, I review From Here to Eternity here, an awful mean-spirited […]

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