The hard man of letters

James Jones was hailed as the new Hemingway for From Here to Eternity. Then, with a little help from Norman Mailer, his prose and lifestyle were slammed by the critics. A new film reassesses the writer who put the f- word into fiction. By Geoffrey Macnab
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The Independent Culture
James Jones has never entirely disappeared from public view. We are reminded of him every time we see Burt Lancaster and Deborah Kerr rolling about in the waves or Montgomery Clift blowing his trumpet in the film version of his novel, From Here To Eternity. It is his reputation which has suffered. Once heralded as the new Hemingway, he has long been dismissed as a writer of macho, naturalistic, boy's own blockbusters. Only now are critics and readers revising their opinions. From Here To Eternity was recently included in a list of the "100 Best Novels Of The Century", compiled by Random House. Terrence Malick's new film version of Jones's 1963 book, The Thin Red Line, due for release in early 1999, is sure to revive interest in his work. Meanwhile, the new Merchant-Ivory film, A Soldier's Daughter Never Cries, provides an intriguing snapshot of the writer during the years he spent as an American exile in Paris in the 1960s.

If Jones has fallen into obscurity, his old friend, Norman Mailer, is partly to blame. Mailer, the belligerent heavyweight of postwar American fiction, never reacted kindly to rivals. In 1951, he was caught off-guard by Jones's first novel, From Here To Eternity. "It knocked me down and half knocked me out," he admitted. "All the while I was reading it I had a sinking feeling, `well, you're no longer the most talented writer to come out of World War II. You've been replaced'."

For a short period in the 1950s, Jones did indeed eclipse Mailer. From Here To Eternity was a huge popular and critical success which took vernacular language to new extremes. Thanks to Jones, his fellow novelist William Styron claimed, it was suddenly possible for American writers to use common expletives. "The dread f-word... so sedulously proscribed by the guardians of decency that even Norman Mailer, in his admirable The Naked And The Dead, only three years before, had had to fudge the issue with an absurd pseudospelling, was now inscribed on the printed page in the speech pattern of those who normally spoke it."

Not only did Jones swear better than Mailer, he fought a more colourful and heroic war. Aged 21, he witnessed the bombing of Pearl Harbor at first- hand and later took part in the bloody American offensive at Gaudalcanal. He killed a Japanese soldier in hand-to-hand combat; won a Purple Heart and a Bronze Star, and was invalided out of the army. His literary pedigree was likewise exemplary. He was a self-taught hick from the midwest, discovered by the same editor - Max Perkins at Scribners - who, a generation before, had championed the work of Scott Fitzgerald, Hemingway and Thomas Wolfe.

The unravelling of Jones's reputation began as soon as his second novel, Some Came Running, was published in 1957. Critics began to mock his lumpen, naturalistic prose. Mailer, eager to resume his position at the top of the pile, accused him of selling out and losing his rebelliousness. He was castigated for leaving America to live in exile in France. By the time he died in 1977, he was considered an anachronistic figure. "His place as a chronicler of the Second World War was taken by Norman Mailer and Mailer was always much more in the news than James Jones," reflects James Ivory.

"The more I read about him, the more I respect him," claims Kris Kristofferson, who plays Bill Willis (the character based on James Jones) in A Soldier's Daughter Never Cries. Kristofferson, an ex-US army captain with a reputation of his own for hell-raising, found plenty of points of identification with the soldier-turned-writer. As he puts it, "both of us came from a generation where the military was a fact of your life".

Kristofferson points out that Jones is a contradictory figure; someone who seemed to live up to the old Hemingway myth of the drunken, macho artist, but also, at least in the latter part of his career, maintained a relatively stable and happy family life. The James Jones he portrays in A Soldier's Daughter Never Cries is a laconic, kind-hearted patriarch. His wife, Gloria (Barbara Hershey), and children, are devoted to him. He plays poker for small stakes, likes a whisky, but otherwise has no noticeable vices. At the suggestion that the character is almost too clean- living, Kristofferson protests: "Compared to people today, he drank a hell of a lot!"

Jones's lifestyle in Paris didn't impress critics of the time, who expected their great American authors either to be much poorer, or to suffer more. "Literary journalists," William Styron recalls in his foreword to the collected edition of Jones's letters, "wrote reproachful monographs about the way Jim and Gloria comported themselves: dinner at Maxine's, after- dinner with the squabs at hang-outs like Castel's, vacations in Deauville and Biarritz, yachting in Greece, the races at Longchamps, the oiled and pampered sloth of Americans in moneyed exile."

A Soldier's Daughter Never Cries is based on an autobiographical novel by Jones's daughter, Kaylie Jones. Events are seen from her perspective, not that of her grizzled old novelist father. Only occasionally are we made aware that her father is still haunted by the war. We hear him talk, in passing, about the difficulty and discomfort that a soldier experiences when obliged to defecate, mid-battle. The reference will be immediately clear to anybody who has read The Thin Red Line (1963). One of the most brutal, disquieting passages in the book describes how a young American at Gauadalcanal bludgeons, stabs and disembowels a Japanese soldier who disturbs him as he tries to relieve himself. (It remains to be seen how Malick's long-awaited new movie, which stars John Travolta, George Clooney, Sean Penn and Nick Nolte, will deal with the scene.)

To describe the war as the key formative influence on Jones would be an understatement. It obsessed him. He returned to it again and again in his fiction. Even on his death bed, wracked with cancer, he was still mulling over it, dictating passages from his final novel, Whistle, into a dictaphone. He knew that it was impossible to recreate what he had seen and suffered on the page. In his 1975 book, WW2, he has a beautiful image to describe the bad faith inherent in writing about war. "It always makes me think of the way the Navahos polish their turquoise. They put raw chunks in a barrel half-filled with birdshot, and then turn the barrel and keep on turning it until the rough edges are all taken off and the nuggets come out smooth and shining. Time, I think, does the same thing... especially with wars."

Jones was fascinated by the economics and morality of mass destruction, and by what he called the "evolution of a soldier", the process by which young, individualistic Americans were turned into fighting machines. In his words, "to teach a young American male to love war and enjoy killing his fellow man - even a Jap or a Nazi - was about comparable to teaching his fresh-faced, dewy-eyed virgin sister to love the physical aspects of simple fucking". His prose was often clumsy and ungainly. He seemed to feel that to write too cleanly would be to betray the experience he was trying to describe.

At his worst, Jones was pompous and macho. Reacting to Mailer's description of the novel as "the Great Bitch, the enemy which each man has to fight and subdue, dominate", he came up with the equally absurd image of the sleeping beauty, "the one who - if I could only awaken her - not only would be the best hump in the world, but would bring me, along with renown, the kingdom and the twenty seven palaces to administer".

It was little wonder that his protests against what he called "the big masculine bullshit" of Hemingway sometimes sounded so hollow. Big masculine bullshit was precisely what Jones seemed to embody. "For most of my generation," Kris Kristofferson remembers, "our image of him came from the films that were made of his books." Compared to Kerouac or Thomas Wolfe, or any of the counter-cultural heroes of the 1960s, Jones belonged in the prehistoric age. Nevertheless, he was a more complex figure than his public persona suggested. The more you find out about him, the more sympathetic he seems. As Kristofferson puts it, "he was a better man than I realised".