(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

Johnny Got His Gun is a modified stream-of-consciousness narrative occurring in the mind of a soldier whose arms, legs, ears, eyes, nose, and mouth have been blown away in a bomb blast during World War I. Written by Hollywood screenwriter Dalton Trumbo, the novel is told using cinematic techniques, particularly in book 1, “The Dead,” which is a fusion of flashbacks and soliloquies in the mind of Joe Bonham.

Awakening in a hospital bed, Bonham first remembers the announcement of his father’s death. Recalling sensory images of his youth, Bonham slowly realizes the extent of his injuries, and he has flashbacks of the night before he left for war, when he made love to his girlfriend, Coreen. In a montage of sounds, Joe recalls his parting words with Coreen, which were mixed with phrases from political speeches and the lyrics from the song from which the book draws its title. This description captures the excitement of the moment and the flavor of the times and also establishes the political backdrop against which Bonham eventually rebels.

As he realizes each loss from his body, Bonham remembers a youthful incident that emphasizes the loss. Each flashback is told in the third person. Joe’s present circumstances are related in the first person as he explores the sensations within his body. Unable to communicate, move, or sense the outside world beyond his limited perceptions, Bonham reviews times with past friends and family, including his attempt to escape a broken love affair by working on a section gang in the desert. He recalls the betrayal of his best friend, Bill Harper, who had stolen Bonham’s first girlfriend. Bonham remembers a fishing trip with Harper and his father and describes scenes of his mother’s cooking.

In between these memories, signaled by fade-outs in the narrative, Bonham’s mind moves through varying psychological states as he explores the extent and ramifications of his wounds. Describing his world in short, simple sentences, he first sees himself as returning...

(The entire section is 831 words.)

Johnny Got His Gun Bibliography

(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

Cooke, Bruce. Dalton Trumbo. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1977. Describing Trumbo’s life and career, Cooke provides useful insights into the composition and response to the novel and film version.

Kovic, Ron. Introduction to Johnny Got His Gun, by Dalton Trumbo. New York: Citadel Press, 1991. In this twelve-page response to Trumbo’s novel, Kovic points to the importance of the book to the veterans of the Vietnam War, particularly those with extreme injuries.

Trumbo, Dalton. Additional Dialogue: Letters of Dalton Trumbo, 1942-1962. New York: M. Evans, 1970. Though it makes little mention of Johnny Got His Gun, this collection illuminates Trumbo’s thoughts and friendships in the post-World War II years.