Tuesday, May 17, 2011


 Well I whistled through this in two days!! It was only 477 pages long, and like its predecessor in relatively large print. And like The Thin Red Line it was written well after the last novel. After having read the trilogy I don't think Jones succeeded in writing three stand alone novels. From Here to Eternity of the three can only claim that status I think as the two following novels are too similar in style as to be almost indistinguishable. Interestingly Whistle is the only book of the trilogy that hasn't been made into a film.

 Whistle is like Red line in being grammatically better than Eternity. There were some jarring sentences that made me cringe, but over all Jones had moved away from the awfulness of Eternity. It was a blessing because I really thought I wouldn't be able to read the next two books of the trilogy if they were as bad. Luckily they weren't and I personally think the last two books are the superior of the three, and of the three Whistle is the one I enjoyed the most.

 This may be that by this stage I had got used to Jones' style and rhythm of writing. But I think it is more than that. The last two novels really are an intelligent look, and appraisal, on the human condition and warfare. In Red Line if you have read my review I explain how Jones goes into death and the effects it has on those who witness it. In Whistle Jones takes that and expands on it into the territory of the long term effects on the soldiers.

 The novel has the wounded from the Solomons Campaign returning to the States on a hospital ship. He has four of his protagonists from the last two novels under new names. Why I'll never understand. It seems pointless and I wish he had kept their names right throughout the trilogy. I found just because he says they are the same characters I couldn't buy into it, and felt they were completely different. Maybe with the time difference between each novel James diluted them unintentionally, but for me I just read them as new characters and not as roll over ones from the previous novels. It was an unusual stance to take from Jones and I'm just unsure why he took it. I found it strange.

 As a novel though this for me was the best of the three. I've done papers at uni on combat fatigue etc and so really recognised what Jones was saying right throughout Whistle. It starts on a hospital ship, and like Red Line, in the minds of the four protagonists. Two are badly wounded, one has a dickey heart, and one is slightly wounded but in need of delicate hand surgery. They all view their home coming differently. In their own way they feel guilty that they have been wounded and are out of the fight. But it is the sense of loss from the security and comradeship of their company that really hits them. They have been through hell and they are all changed mentally. What they quickly find once ashore and in hospital, is that there are no systems in place to ease them back into another unit or society.

 In Red Line Jones shows how combat and its inherent horrors made the men want to leave it behind. But when these four have the opportunity they find they can't re-adjust to any other environment. All Quiet on the Western Front has several chapters that dwells on this as soldiers on leave find they have been scarred by their experiences and cannot cope with the civilian world. Jones does this for an entire novel and does it superbly as we watch these four men mentally disintegrate.

 As on Guadalcanal their initial escape route is in copious amounts of booze. At first it works but slowly they start to have nightmares that the booze can't keep out. They wake up screaming in the middle of the night in sweats. One doesn't feel secure until he has a pistol or bayonet under his pillow at night, even though he is in perfect safety. The inability to readjust manifests itself into violence. One was once a mild mannered clerk, but after his experiences he comes home and becomes a different person. He is full of anger and rage, especially at the army, and picks fights after heavy drinking .He usually wins out of sheer rage, and gets a reputation as a guy not to mess with.

 I like the way Jones has shown how each man tries to deal with his experiences in their own way. They are individual to each and mirrored the real mental traumas suffered by returning wounded from the battle fields of WW2. Jones has canvased so much territory and written it brilliantly into his four characters. I like how he has Prell as a very reluctant Medal of Honour recipient and the politics behind his award. He was severely wounded in both legs which weren't healing. The doctors said they'd have to amputate one to save his life. Prell refuses and we see how his decision may affect the outcome of his medal. It is deemed that it isn't in the public interest to see a Medal of Honour winner with only one leg. Political chicanery at its worse as opinion is valued more than the individual soldier and his well being.

 Prell himself is unsure of his own right to be awarded the medal. He feels he didn't deserve it because he was still alive and believes only those who are killed should be awarded it. He starts to heal after one of the other characters intervenes and helps him with some unflattering comments. He does walk again, gets married to a girl he gets pregnant and goes on a country wide War Bonds trip. He is successful at it but slowly his nightmares start and anger builds in him which he can't explain or rid himself of. He also starts to fight and is killed in a drunken bar room brawl.

 This is the heart of the novel. How the four of them quickly unravelled once they were taken out of the security of their company in the Solomons. It shows the paradox of wanting to escape the fear and death, and yet how once out, the inability to adjust to new surroundings. Jones subtly shows how the army de-humanises its soldiers to the point of the needed discipline to function. But by doing so fails to recognise that the same men need rehabilitating at some stage, and how there is no system in place in which to do so. They are sent home, hospitalised, cured, and then either reassigned or discharged. The army is shown to not realise the men had come to rely heavily on their units, and comrades, that by separating them they quickly felt isolated and alone.

 The comradeship inherent to a units performance is important and without that shield the four feel naked and abandoned. Also with their experiences they find there is little or no support for them in dealing with what they have seen and been through. We see one killed in a fight he started, one ends up in an army pysch ward because of his nightmares that cause him to crack, and two commit suicide. Jones may look melo-dramatic in killing off all four but by doing so he is making his point across a wide spectrum of what many returning soldiers experienced. I think this wasn't a problem many knew existed during WW2, and was only recognised after the Vietnam war as a real condition that needed to be taken seriously.

 For me From Here to Eternity didn't really say anything. Maybe when he wrote it Jones wasn't aware of far he was going to take things, and didn't envisage a trilogy. I didn't really like Eternity but I'm mightily impressed by the next two novels. I'd go are far as to say forget Eternity and just read Red Line and Whistle as they are the more potent and intelligent books. Jones has superbly put the reader into the minds of men who have witnessed the horrors of war and uncompromisingly shown us, who haven't, what it does to the minds who have. It is a brutal and frank appraisal of not just war, but the armies who send these men out to die, and the almost unbending bureaucracy that sees them relegated to automatons. As automatons no thought, or systems, were put in place to pick up the pieces, and give them the opportunity to readjust to life inside or outside of the army.

 For me Whistle is the best of the three novels. Jones has been through what he writes, and though he never expresses anger ,the reader can feel it through his characters. This is a unique novel because very few novels, or for that matter works of non-fiction, deal with the effects of war on those who experienced it. It was a subject that was quietly swept under the carpet, and any man who was mentally scarred treated with derision and seen as a pussy or unheroic who needed to 'harden up'. It was disgraceful treatment and luckily a syndrome that is much better understood. There are quite a few good movies and books coming out recently that highlight it. ( The Hurt Locker is a good example ).

 As a stand alone novel I don't think Jones succeeded in his desire. It is definitely a follow on from The thin Red line and reads like it. I don't think you can read Whistle and get the most out of it without reading Red Line first. It is a brilliant expose of combat fatigue. I like how Jones has shown in Red Line the why and in Whistle the result of the why. These men came back not only damaged in body, but more importantly in mind. Jones goes inside those damaged minds from which the reader can only sympathise with there plight, and almost callously say to themselves, 'thank god that wasn't me.

 James Jones didn't actually finish Whistle. He died with the last four chapters uncompleted. He left enough notes though that another author was able to write short sketches of each chapter. They provide enough so the reader gets a rough idea of how Jones was going to wind things up. He died at the age of 55 from congestive heart failure. He must have known he had this illness because Sgt Winch in Whistle has the same condition.

 Whistle is a grammatical improvement on From Here to Eternity and hence much easier to read. My only criticism is that Jones has an annoying obsession in Whistle with oral sex. I don't know why it is relative to the core message but he goes into oral sex too much. While I'm not a prude I felt it unnecessary, and left me wondering, why? It almost gets crude to the point of crudeness for crudeness sake, and it doesn't fit the novel at all. In Eternity there are no sex scenes but in Whistle they are explicit and all involve 'cunt', 'cock', 'come', etc. It is an unfortunate diversion from where the book was going. But if you can see past it and understand Jones' appraisal on the damaged minds of soldiers you'll be alright.

 Definitely worth a read if you want to understand what returning soldiers go through in trying to readjust to an old way of life that they no longer identify with.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for your comments on Whistle. I read this book when I was in the Army in the early 1980's, along with Eternity and The Thin Red Line. I think for me Red Line was my favorite, the anguish of the guys in Whistle got a little trying. I am writing a memoir about addiction, and I spent some time in a VA methadone clinic and it reminded me so much of Whistle, except most of the guys I was with were either Vietnam vets or Iraqi war vets.