James Jones Jones, James (Vol. 3) - Essay

Jones, James (Vol. 3)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Jones, James 1921–

Jones is an American novelist, best known for his first novel, From Here to Eternity. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 1-4, rev. ed.)

Jones's way of looking, his portrait of disjunction between society and the self, emerges least scathed by his prose, I think, in his first novel, From Here to Eternity. It is true that the central characters in his first two gigantic novels are all sturdy inhabitants of a subculture in our twentieth century, and outsiders to the proprieties of language and behavior of suburbia. The half-literate Regular Army men in his first novel, as well as the inhabitants of the beer joints of Parkman, Illinois, of his second, enjoy existence largely by gambling, drinking and casual sexual encounters with their own kind. But it is only in From Here to Eternity that we feel the author's power to stir our awareness of the slim margin of conviction that holds us to a more decorous life. Perhaps the first of his novels, based as he tells us upon real events and a real barracks, represents some combination of Jones's imagination and memory that could function well within the self-imposed limits of a small barracks world. At any rate, there is a genuine vitality in From Here to Eternity that is missing from the gross, spread-eagled substance of Some Came Running, from the fastidious smallness of Jones's novelette, The Pistol, and from the unrelieved, emotional bludgeoning of … The Thin Red Line….

Some Came Running fails absolutely, I think, on two counts. In the first place, its characters and events lack the sufficient meaning of successful fiction. It insists that we take as important revelation pages of pitilessly dull comment on love, on writing, on religion, as expounded by Parkman's intellectuals, Gwen French and her father. The novel asks us to hold on in admiration while all the inhabitants of the local beer and whiskey joints have their say on the art of love. It asks us to listen, sometimes for twenty pages at a stretch, to the repulsive 'Bama Dillert, eminently successful at poker, constant finger-stirrer of the whiskey in his glass, utterly fascinating to all the factory girls, give long disquisitions on how to drive a car … or, more pain-fully, on the meaning of life….

In the second place, Some Came Running fails because of its insistently clumsy syntax, gauche to such a degree that a reader catches himself rewriting as he tunnels through the prose….

David L. Stevenson, "James Jones and Jack Kerouac: Novelists of Disjunction" (© 1963 by David L. Stevenson; reprinted by permission of Doubleday & Co., Inc.), in The Creative Present: Notes on Contemporary American Fiction, edited by Nona Balakian and Charles Simmons, Doubleday, 1963, pp. 195-212.

Jones illustrates the way in which the balance between individual freedom and social order has shifted to the social order, requiring so many concessions from the individual that he must die either in resisting or in surrendering. This rather simple conflict is enriched by a human ambiguity in From Here to Eternity, for Prewitt, far from hating the army, loves it; he is a thirty-year-man. But how does an individual, in the full sense of the word, reconcile his integrity with an authority which insists that he abandon it? How does he come to live in "harmony" with the "powers of the world," as Jaspers urged him to do? This is the paradox that gives Jones's book the overtones of tragedy.

Jerry H. Bryant, in his The Open Decision: The Contemporary American Novel and Its Intellectual Background (reprinted with the permission of Macmillan Publishing Co., Inc.; © 1970 by The Free Press, a Division of Macmillan Publishing Co., Inc.), The Free Press, 1970, pp. 128-29.

For some time after the appearance of his first novel, From Here to Eternity, in 1951, it was customary to speak of James Jones as a leading young American writer of promise, one who, in degree and kind of talent, could justly be compared with Norman Mailer. Over the next fifteen years, as the two men continued to produce, the comparison came to seem absurd and the differences between them blatantly plain. It was evident, in spite of his large defects, that Mailer had a first-rate mind capable of steadily developing, even remaking, its consciousness of experience and literary possibility. The more Jones wrote, the more obvious it became that he had a thoroughly commonplace mind seemingly arrested forever at the level of its first adolescent ideas about experience and literature….

Jones seemed to operate on the assumption that the way to write a novel is to assemble innumerable sheets of paper and shovel words onto them until they are full…. It thus became possible to bring Jones into alignment with a whole new set of literary competitors, writers like Robert Ruark, Leon Uris, and Harold Robbins, and to assign him at last to his rightful place in contemporary letters….

The real trouble with Jones is that he has been functioning for years—in fact, from the beginning of his career—on the basis of creative premises and emotional assumptions that are no longer adequate to the conditions of experience. He must be one of the very last seriously motivated writers still trying to work with the form Henry James called the novel of saturation, as opposed to the novel of selection….

Thus, his approach to fiction is antiquated and provincial, not because it is no longer in fashion, but because it can no longer be depended upon to yield a valid or original impression of reality. That is why his treatment of experience seems so one-dimensional and his characters so curiously wooden and unconvincing—because we sense that we have been here before; we have already seen experience in this way; and we know, as creatures of the contemporary world, that this is no longer the way things are.

John W. Aldridge, "Twosomes and Threesomes in Gray Paree," in Saturday Review (copyright © 1971 by Saturday Review/World, Inc.; reprinted with permission), February 13, 1971, p. 23.

Everyone realizes that James Jones writes badly, that he's no great philosopher, but who cares? "What punch!" his readers cry. "What guts!" Let book-reviewing sissies wring their hands over misplaced modifiers; the Book-of-the-Month Club smiles and selects.

So, since the fans love him, let a sissy book reviewer wring his hands. Jones writes so badly that his offenses constitute as great a crime against nature as against literature. A book ["The Merry Month of May"] written this badly shouldn't be called a book. It should be called a reading instrument, or a money maker, or a thing….

For what it's worth, "The Merry Month of May" is a better thing than Jones's last thing, "Go to the Widow-Maker," but that one was the worst thing I have ever read.

Geoffrey Wolff, "Second Empire Man," in Newsweek (copyright Newsweek, Inc., 1971; reprinted by permission), February 15, 1971, pp. 87-9.

Even more so than the last novel, Go to the Widow-Maker, [The Merry Month of May] is an exploration of bad-taste in every category—grammatical, sociological, sexual, conversational, cultural, and literary. Although it purports to be an account of the May Revolution, the book shows very little understanding of the issues involved and presents, at best, a fuzzy and narrow view of the events. So much for the "research" possibility. That leaves the last.

Jones' style never ceases to annoy…. The arrator, the barest of disguises for the author himself, is so enamored of his own voice that we hear his characters speak for themselves only by apparent mischance. When they do speak, their conversation is riddled with embarrassingly overt reminders of what Jones must consider to be its authenticity….

Who would finish such a novel? I hope, only a reviewer who prides himself with never having given up hope for a book until he's finished it. Who would buy it? Aye, there's the rub. I have often wished that the God of Books would grant to each reviewer, once in a lifetime, the right to have any writer taken out of circulation and quietly strangled—without any question, any explanation. Jones would be my choice. If justice itself is more than a word, then such an all-encompassing misuse of words as Jones is guilty of will not go without retribution.

Kenneth John Atchity, in Mediterranean Review, Winter, 1972, pp. 46-7.

The strength of the genre [of crime fiction] has always been more episodic than thematic—"heavy confrontations in romantic situations," as the screenwriters like to say. Banal as its title may sound, A Touch of Danger succeeds precisely at that level. Classic Greece gone sick and stoned. Marble ruins and the gibberish of hard rock music. Jones is not a graceful writer, and indeed the clinkers common to his recent works resound just as harshly throughout this one. But here, in a fictional form that forgives sloppy writing more readily than most, his clumsiness is far less apparent. With Lobo Davies, perhaps Jim Jones has finally found his stride. It is not the Long March of the Lonely Major Novelist, but what the hell. Even a turkey trot can be fun, once in a while.

Robert F. Jones, "Murder in the Wine-Dark Sea," in Book World—The Washington Post (© The Washington Post), May 6, 1973, pp. 4-5.

Here's an oddity. James Jones, who previously has worked in the vein of what are called "serious" novels, suddenly turns out a whodunit [A Touch of Danger]. Despite the fact that A. Conan Doyle, Dorothy L. Sayers, Dashiell Hammett, George V. Higgins, and others have made the detective mystery into a special kind of fictional art form, it is usually distinguished from the "serious." The immediate question is, "How good is Jones at this kind of writing?" The answer can be, "At least pretty good."

Jones has never surpassed his first novel, From Here to Eternity, which came out six years after World War II and gave us a grimly realistic picture of America's peacetime army. In his new book, Jones brings many of his gifts as a writer to a private-eye story set on a Greek island.

Harry T. Moore, in Chicago Tribune Book World, May 6, 1973, p. 8.

It's a long way from his first novel, "From Here to Eternity" to "A Touch of Danger" …, but James Jones has made the trip under full sail. "A Touch of Danger" … does not pretend to be "literature." It has no aim except to entertain. Nor does it look deeply into character. It is a competent example of its genre, with all the conventions virtually intact….

"A Touch of Danger" takes an unflattering look at the beat generation (if it is still called that), at drugs, blackmail, murder and a decadent upper class. There also is a bit of a surprise at the end—a rather unfair one, it should be added. Otherwise, the plotting is exemplary, and the writing is that of a real pro. If the book has one trouble, it does go on a bit too long. Nobody will be bored, however. Jones keeps the action boiling.

Newgate Callendar, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1973 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), May 13, 1973, p. 38.