Saturday, November 19, 2011

To the End of the War - Unpublished Fiction by James Jones

James Jones
James Jones is easily one of the most recognized and influential authors of the post-World War II era, and for good reason.  His masterpieces From Here to Eternity and The Thin Red Line are raw and visceral, poignant explorations of war and its dehumanizing effect upon the men that fight it.  If you've never heard of Jones, you owe yourself at least a quick glance at his wikipedia entry because his life and writing career are quite interesting.  While there you might see that his first novel was something called They Shall Inherit the Laughter, a thinly veiled autobiographical work describing Jones' experience after having returned home from the war in the Pacific to recover from wound suffered in the Battle of Guadalcanal.  They Shall Inherit the Laughter never saw publication even though Jones had several discussions with influential publishers and editors and revised his novel multiple times.  Eventually he put Laughter aside in favor of what would become the National Book Award winning novel (and huge freakin' tome) From Here To Eternity.

Well, thanks to the estate of James Jones and the enterprising folks at Open Road Integrated Media, They Shall Inherit the Laughter has finally been released for consumption of the reading public, albeit with some... modifications.  See, there was a reason the original novel wasn't published back in Jones' day.  It just wasn't that good.  Oh, there were spots of brilliance there, as key individuals in Jones' circle seemed to realize; it just wasn't as focused or structured as a published novel needs to be.  The current publication has been titled To the End of the War and has been chopped up into smaller short stories in order to salvage the better parts of the manuscript. 


As in his later works, To the End of the War is intensely critical of the military, war-time society, and the propaganda machine at large.  He also lays bare the psychological wounds of returning combat veterans, one of the first soldier/authors to do so in such vivid and uncompromising detail.  As the book's forward states, Jones' best asset is his dialogue.  He effortlessly captures character and motivation and emotion in just a few words.  Though, at times he does have a tendency to turn character speeches into orations to themselves.  It's not very bothersome, though.  The genius behind the words more than makes up for it. 

What doesn't make up for it?  Well, the overall structure, for one.  As I said before, the original novel has been broken up into separate short stories, all following Jones' main character Johnny, but none of them offering anything in terms of a complete story.  They're more vignettes than anything, and while we get a glimpse of intensely interesting characters, there's very little plot to string them all together.  As such, I have a feeling that readers unfamiliar with Jones and his body of work will feel lost in the reading of it.  You can also tell that Jones' voice and style were pretty immature at this point.  He was mostly a self-taught author (by itself no mean feat), and it seems as though he was trying to figure out how to rail against the establishment and not sound like a whiny little punk--which at times he does, unfortunately.  But what author doesn't when he's just starting out? 

Now, this is a fairly minor gripe, and I know the copy of the book I received was probably an uncorrected proof, but there were some major formatting issues that made reading the ebook harder than it needed to be.  For instance, there were no page breaks.  Anywhere.  And there was nothing to signify where one story ended and the editor's lead-in to the next story began.  It looked as if all the text had been pumped through a text editor, stripping it of all formatting, and then dumped into the document I received.  Reading it was more difficult than it needed to be, and I sincerely hope that the formatting got a good hard look prior to final publication. 

But as I said before, there are seeds of brilliance in this book.  Jones' insight into the military, the war, and human weakness are wonderful.  Especially profound is the way he portrays man's base desire to hold dominion over other men and how that need infiltrates the military bureaucracy.  I also appreciated his juxtaposition of combat veterans trying to adjust to life back home against green troops itching for their first taste of "action."  He illuminates many of the realities of military service in stark detail, but that alone does not a good book make.  The fact of the matter is that without a cohesive plot these stories cannot stand on their own.  The original ideas presented here germinated until they became the classics From Here to Eternity and The Thin Red Line, but at this point in Jones' literary career they were immature and incomplete.  Most readers would be better served tackling the aforementioned titles first.  While interesting and, at times, profound, To the End of the War is a footnote to the greatness of the rest of his bibliography.  I only suggest it for those readers who know Jones' later work, love it, and want deeper insight into where it came from.


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