Thursday, March 23, 2006

From Here to Eternity

A book has to be extremely good for me to admire it if I don’t like its prose style. My thinking about writing tends to begin at the level of the sentence, and overwritten or poorly executed prose is almost always an insurmountable distraction. So it’s saying something that James Jones’s From Here to Eternity—the prose style of which I not only disliked, but actively disagreed with—completely captivated me, pulling me into its world with a miss-your-train-stop kind of fascination. It’s a hell of a book.

From Here to Eternity is thought of as a World War II novel—many people think it’s the best World War II novel. But, like my other favorite novel about that war, James Gould Cozzens’s less-remembered Guard of Honor, it takes place away from war, on an army base, where the only violence is that which the officers and enlisted men compulsively inflict on one another. The life of the men at their Hawaii base is so all-encompassing that when the Japanese attack Pearl Harbor towards the end of the book, it almost comes as a surprise.

Though Jones creates and develops dozens of distinct characters, From Here to Eternity’s two poles, the commanding presences from which it draws its power and around which it’s organized, are Private Robert E. Lee Prewitt and 1st Sergeant Milton Warden. Prewitt is a thirty-year Army man who’s chosen the Army for life without ever fully accepting the sacrifice of individuality that it requires of him. Warden, on the other hand, has channeled his frustrations with the Army into iron-willed control over all the details of G Company—details that should be the purview of his superiors, whose incompetence and uninterest only serve to fuel Warden’s relentless, hard-edged competence. The struggles of the two men—against, at various times, each other, their superiors, their fellow enlisted men, and the Army itself—are the heart of the book. Do you kick at every imposition, fight until you're utterly broken, or do you focus your energies on bending one circumscribed area to your will, while making the necessary compromises outside your domain?

Jones’s themes grow out of those strong personalities: the place of the individual in a system designed to crush initiative and difference; the fate of integrity and achievement in an organization that rewards neither—that in fact fears them; the fine lines between sensible compromise and self-abasement, honor and self-destruction. But it’s not just the army that’s the problem. In a sense, From Here to Eternity doesn’t even need the military: Jones could drop his characters into nearly any situation, and we’d learn many of the same things about them. The same is true of Guard of Honor. But for both books, the unique conditions of the army—its clear lines of authority, its legitimation of violence, and its close quartering of volatile personalities—serve to increase the pressure on the characters, confronting them daily with the compromises and failures that in civilian life they might unwittingly train themselves to ignore.

Around Prewitt and Warden, Jones builds a cast of convincing, well-developed characters, ranging from the hardworking, honorable, racist Mess Sergeant Maylon Stark to the gifted athlete and alcoholic Corporal Choate. Jones gives us moments where we truly understand each of these characters, including a stunning scene where Warden’s superior, Captain Dana "Dynamite" Holmes, who has previously been presented entirely through Warden’s disapproving eyes, becomes the focus of our sympathy; the swiftness and power of the reversal is jaw-dropping.

Then there’s Prewitt’s friend, Private Angelo Maggio, one of the most compelling characters in the book. He’s the indomitable scrapper who so impressed Frank Sinatra that, rumor has it, he went to great lengths to secure the part in the 1953 movie. Maggio’s rant while in the Stockade for a drunken brawl limns the struggle that is Jones’s focus:
“Well, I’ve stood all I can stand—if I can get myself out of standing any more of it. They aint going to drive this soldier to any goddam suicide. And they aint going to drive this soldier into growing a brown nose. They shouldn’t teach their immigrants’ kids all about democracy unless they mean to let them have a little of it, it ony makes for trouble. Me and the United States is disassociating our alliance as of right now, until the United States can find time to read its own textbooks a little.”

Maggio’s speech also demonstrates one of the problems I had with Jones’s prose: his cluttered dialogue that, despite the use of dialect (my least favorite of the tools available to a writer) manages to sound utterly unlikely and unnatural. He fragments sentences and duplicates adverbs and adjectives in a distracting attempt to suggest the multiplicity and complexity of the world; unlike Anthony Powell, whose descriptions and redescriptions feel like careful attempts to reach exactitude, Jones’s extravagance with modifiers feels forced—and therefore lifeless.

But, as I said at the opening, it doesn’t matter, in the same way that Melville’s logorrhea in Moby-Dick doesn’t matter. There’s just way too much going on in From Here to Eternity for me to quibble, too many characters to watch and worry about. Too many individuals set loose to work with, fight against, and wonder about other individuals who are stuck doing the very same thing, separated by apprehension and misunderstanding from the camaraderie and mutual support they might otherwise share. The richness of characters and Jones's deep understanding of human nature overcome the limitations of the prose. And once in a while, they do work together, as in this passage that, for the first time, gave me real insight into the actual workings of self-destructive impulses:
Warden got up from the meatblock that was beside the chair and stepped around the chair and bent to get the bottle. There was a way to handle this. There was a way to handle everything. All you had to do was be careful. But then, you got so tired of always going around always being careful.

Near the end of the novel, Jones boils the whole book down to one sentence, and he puts it in Warden’s mouth. “‘Why does the world have to be the way it is,’ Warden said, letting himself go completely. ‘I dont know why the world has to be like it is.’”

His lover responds, “I dont know either. And I used to be very bitter about it. But now I know it has to be that way. Theres no other way for it to be. Whenever a menace is conquered, a new more subtle menace arises. There is no other way it could be.”

Or, in the blunt idiom appropriate to the army: if the world weren't SNAFUed in this particular way, we’d have found some other way to SNAFU it. Living with it—and the way it taints us—day to day is the best we can hope to do.

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