Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 91
Jones, James 1921–1977
An American novelist and short story writer, Jones is best remembered for his candid, realistic portrayals of military life and the horrors of war. His first novel, From Here to Eternity, secured for Jones an international reputation, but his following works have often been criticized as crude and simplistic. Whistle, on which he was working when he died, was completed from his notes by his friend Willie Morris. He won the National Book Award in 1952. (See also CLC, Vols. 1, 3, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 1-4, rev. ed.; obituary, Vols. 69-72.)
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 466
Jones wrote out of his obsession with the condition and fate of [the] doomed men [who made up the ranks of enlisted men in the years before the democratization of the Army]. His important works are really one long book. Jones considered it a trilogy, starting with "From Here to Eternity," going on to "The Thin Red Line" and the book he had almost completed when he died—"Whistle."… By adding his "The Pistol" I would prefer to call the work a quartet…. (pp. 3, 34)
Speaking of a work of another writer—"Golden Boy" by Clifford Odets—the director of the play, Harold Clurman, once said, "It is a play about the conflict between the fiddle and the fist," meaning, of course, the conflict between art and savagery, civilization and barbarism. In the case of Jones, we might say his work is about the conflict between the gun and the bugle. It is no accident that Jones's hero in "From Here to Eternity" is both a boxer and a bugler, and renounces boxing.
Now the last notes have been played and we can ask of the player, What was the call we heard and how was it played?
It was a song about valor and sorrow, a cry of exile, of pride in adversity, of comradeship and hatred, of resignation to organized injustice, a speaking up for men too inarticulate to speak up for themselves, a song of outcasts, of men who did the dirty work that others shunned. And how was it played? Clearly, unsentimentally, bluntly, knowingly, with a craftsman's hard-earned skill. It came from a group of men who spoke plainly, without euphemisms, using words about death and sex and cowardice and chicanery and despair that before Jones had rarely been seen on the printed page in this country. By "talking dirty," as children say, Jones helped clean up our ideas of permissible language and enlarged the boundaries of our literature. Among his other accomplishments Jones removed the asterisk from our novels. What we know we now can describe, making the novelist's world more solid and credible in the process. Along with the war he celebrated, Jones made his own war on cant and dishonesty. From the stink of the battlefield and the barracks came a bracing, clear wind of truth. To use a military term, he walked point for his company. (pp. 34-5)
The future will classify us all, and there are surprises in store for even the wisest of us. If we believe now that Stephen Crane's "The Red Badge of Courage" will endure in American literature, we must believe that James Jones's four-volume book of men at war will endure with it. (p. 35)
Irwin Shaw, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1977 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), June 12, 1977.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1072
Of the four main protagonists of Whistle, two are suicides, one is murdered in a bar fight, and the last goes mad. All are medal winners for heroism during the U.S. South Pacific campaign of World War II. That was Jones's final verdict on the war he himself had tried to fight honorably and found there was no honor; there was only self-survival, which became contaminated by meaningless death on every side and led to the most profound despair on the part of every man with a shred of conscience.
It might be appropriate to give a newer generation a quick sketch of what made Jones unique. Unlike radical intellectuals and practicing Christians who also condemn war—as a matter of fact, who doesn't today?—Jones began as a romantic, hard-nosed war lover…. There was something so basically up-yours American male in his appetites that he spoke for hundreds of thousands in his first, most widely read novel, From Here to Eternity, which ended with the attack on Pearl Harbor.
A decade later came The Thin Red Line, which examines with a kind of brooding contempt the murder and monstrosity on Guadalcanal during the campaign against the Japanese in '42 and '43. Any male romanticism that Jones might have had about testing himself in the ultimate contest had long since fled. What makes the book extraordinary is the tremendous calm and self-discipline with which he opens a door on hell; no shrieking, no hysteria, but instead a very level and unrelenting examination of what modern warfare is like….
Whistle brings this big, sad story of the American fighting man and the so-called last great war to its final ghoulish resting-place. The four characters who dominate the book have all been wounded in some fashion during the fighting on the Pacific Island of South Georgia, following Guadalcanal. They are all sent to an army hospital in "Luxor," Tennessee, to mend…. The hospital and the town become the final stage for the deterioration of the four men.
Three of the four we have met before under different names. Mart Winch was the sardonic and masterful 1st/Sgt. Warden in Eternity and 1st/Sgt. Welsh in Red Line: Bobby Prell was the defiant bugler Pvt. Prewitt (really the young Jones) in Eternity and Pvt. Witt in Red Line, and John Strange was the amiable Mess/Sgt. Stark in Eternity and Mess/Sgt. Storm in Red Line. (p. 70)
All have deep mental wounds as well as physical ones, revolving around the men they have deserted on South Georgia. One must recall that the war is still going on, getting ever more fierce. Loyalty to the company and the division is their only patriotism. Even at the hospital this bond makes the surgeon think twice before amputating Prell's festering leg, almost as if these vets would lynch him if he added to their humiliation. But as Mark Winch sneeringly predicts—and they look to him as their father figure, a role he can't abide—the bond is going to fray. They have all seen too much and been through too much to take unquestioning comfort in each other. (pp. 70-1)
The odor of death permeates this last book in a sharp, unflinching way that distinguishes it from its predecessors. Jones had the first of several heart attacks in 1970, when he was beginning the final rewrite on Whistle, and one can't help but be aware that this knowledge of foreshortening mortality colors the book. To Mart Winch, the oldest, wisest, and most disillusioned of the four, Jones gives his own weakening physical symptoms and much of his mature outlook. If Prewitt was the persona of Jones's roaring young manhood, Winch is the used-up lion of his middle age….
This is a sadder book than the others because there is no relief from the starkness. Whether it is the most profound of the three is an arguable point. Jones fought to keep his humanity to the end—and a novelist without humanity becomes a propagandist—even though one feels at moments that the author wants to sit the reader down on his knee, like a naive child, and lecture him about the insanity of the human race. But Jones keeps this impulse under tight control for the most part and goes about his business as a conscientious, if sometimes nose-thumbingly raw, craftsman. Yet there is little contrast in the emotional coloration of the novel.
It is very realistically written, with all that gorgeous, snickering love of army detail that Jones knew down to his fingertips. But the four leading figures have in one sense already died when they are shipped back to the States. They are almost ghost figures compared to their earlier personifications in Eternity and Red Line. We know they are doomed, and that we can do nothing about it. It is painful and frustrating, and sometimes we feel that Jones is sadistically prolonging the agony when he could have ended it with a blunt literary pistol shot—made it half as long, half as painful.
And yet one still roots for him all the way to wring every drop of spleen out of his heart about the one subject he knew better than any other writer in the country. The art may have suffered, the suspense is that of a mystery in which we know whodunnit in the first chapter—but the bulldog snarl of the man is heightened by his refusal to let us off easy. This is what American war has done to American man, he is saying, and it is all a revolting crock of shit. Look at it. Feel it. Goddam—eat it, you foolish civilians who cloak the dead meat of a generation in judicious abstractions. You are the pitiable ones!…
Jones didn't want to let us off the hook of his grim final vision one little inch, especially at the mutual windup of his life and art. It will take time for the just rank and worth of this soldier-scribe to emerge from the journalistic gunfire of our time, but if you squint through the haze you can see Stephen Crane and Hemingway waiting at the barracks door to welcome a tough soul brother home. He was an equal. (p. 71)
Krim, "In a Bulldog Snarl: War Is a Crock," in The Village Voice (reprinted by permission of The Village Voice; copyright © by The Village Voice, Inc., 1978), March 6, 1978, pp. 70-1.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 453
There are a number of excellent reasons why James Jones's last novel shouldn't work, none of them particularly new. Jones was neither a psychologist nor a stylist; his characterizations lack both depth and complexity and his prose is serviceable at best, although there is, as always, rather a lot of it. His notions about sex are frequently preposterious, and his ideas concerning American womanhood are egregious when they are not positively insulting. His protagonists are unpleasant. His plot is a symphony based on a single note. His earnestness resembles that of a man trying to thread a needle in boxing gloves.
These qualities have inevitably proven fatal to most if not all of Jones's civilian fiction, but in Whistle—as in its predecessors in the trilogy, From Here to Eternity and The Thin Red Line—they are either moot or, what is more remarkable, they are improbably transmuted into virtues. What his characters lack in depth is more than made up for in resonance. The interminable clumsiness of the prose, the sexual naiveté, and the unidimensional eroticism of the male-female relationships cease to function as crippling liabilities and become instead badges of authenticity.
Jones as a writer had mastered a single subject: World War II as perceived and experienced by the proletariat of the military slum, the common professional soldiery. If his words do not possess the suppleness, wit, and majesty brought to that struggle by enthusiastic amateurs, they also lack the innocence; Jones, like his protagonists, worships in a different church…. With its peculiar crude power, James Jones's voice is the best and truest one they will ever have. (pp. E1-E2)
Jones at his best—and he is at his best [in Whistle]—was neither a cynic nor a romantic; he possessed none of Hemingway's power of self-delusion. It is tempting to extract a facile metaphor of the human condition from his vision of battle, but he will not allow us to do so. His integrity would not permit him to treat combat as a bad roll of the dice; it is an unendurable proposition for which no preparation is adequate, a situation unspeakable in its horrors…. [This] is an important book, and it completes a monument that is certain to endure. It may very well be the only major body of American fiction to come out of the war. If, as Mallarmé would have it, the novelist is a mirror walking down the road of man, James Jones accepted the challenge, and in the last analysis he proved more than equal to the task. (p. E2)
L. J. Davis, "G.I. Jones: The End of the Epic," in Book World—The Washington Post (© The Washington Post), March 12, 1978, pp. E1-E2.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1322
Throughout his career as a novelist, James Jones … was a self-willed anachronism out of step with his literary generation…. After 1945, when other ex-soldiers lusting for literary glory began spinning the ephemeral exploits of war into the relative permanence of fiction, Jones doggedly set out, in From Here to Eternity, to write not about combat but about the pre-war, peacetime Regular Army…. Not until 1962 did Jones get around to publishing The Thin Red Line, drawn from his combat experiences in a rifle company that fought on Guadalcanal and New Georgia.
Characteristically, Jones wrote The Thin Red Line oblivious to all the signs that the advance guard of intellectual opinion about war and venerable American ideals had begun to turn with radical hostility against the exultant mood of victory now more than fifteen years in the past. Only a year earlier, Joseph Heller, in Catch-22, had provided the decade with a startling new attitude toward the World War and all war…. Yet while Heller's savage mockery of army bureaucracy and the shibboleths of war became the absurdist epiphany of the 1960's, Jones was choosing to celebrate such old-fashioned virtues as bravery under fire and the warm solidarity of men at arms….
Not that The Thin Red Line was merely a gung-ho glorification of combat. If one side of Jones's imagination strove to apotheosize warfare as "the greatest" of all human endeavors, he was also capable of rendering with blunt power the charnel-house brutality and mutilation and senseless death that await soldiers in battle…. [Jones] needed to believe that the reality of war, however nightmarish and bloody, was in the end something other than Heller's lunatic farce. (p. 90)
The Thin Red Line was the last work of sustained literary merit that Jones wrote…. It was as if his idea of the fearlessly aggressive virility that distinguishes men from boys had become frozen for the rest of his days by the army's unyielding maleness, which ritualized not only the soldier's performance of his duty and the punishment of his derelictions, but his drunkenness and whoring, his obscenity, his deeply private longings and distemper. If the army was the only milieu in which Jones felt at home as a writer, it was because that fine-tuned machine of war, that honeycomb of rules and traditions and ranks and regulations, provided him with a rigidly stable point of personal, sexual, and social reference, the unalterable measure by which he could grasp and judge the world at large. Indeed, the army was the world—the great American cross-section of rubes and city slickers, leaders and lackeys, bullies and men of honor, fags and he-men, pillars of society and Dead End kids, redneck louts and visionary rebels. (pp. 90-1)
The numbing regimentation and the jungle violence, the mindless tedium and primitive integrity of the barracks world was Jones's singular experience, his sole claim to originality. In his first book, From Here to Eternity, he had made the most of it. Investing all his imaginative energy in "the cult of experience," Jones relived his peacetime-army years with such seductive authority, such a torrent of unforgotten detail, that, rereading the book after more than twenty years, I found myself drawn helplessly back into its raw vitality….
But of course all the weaknesses of the redskin writer also stand out like bayonets in From Here to Eternity—the sentimentality and the half-baked mysticism, the puerile rejection of human and cultural attachments. Thus, Robert E. Lee Prewitt, the Harlan County miner's son who blows the sweetest and purest bugle ever heard, and whom Jones portrays, à la Natty Bumppo, as one of nature's doomed noblemen, yearns with restless nostalgia for the boundless freedom and undemanding male fraternity of hobos on the open road….
Like Thomas Wolfe, whose woozy ah-life rhetoric had made Jones decide to become a writer after he left the army, Jones had a bad habit of confusing incantation with thought, particularly if the big pseudo-philosophical bubbles came from a self-taught rolling stone like (in From Here to Eternity) the charismatic ex-Wobbly Jack Malloy, who becomes Prewitt's mentor while the two of them are doing time together in the stockade. Ideas were in fact alien and threatening to Jones's imagination and temperament. Although he did not come by his devotion to "naturalness" altogether naturally …, Jones did feel an instinctive affinity for the "basic artless simplicity" of unlettered hillbillies strumming mournful and lonely songs on cheap guitars. (p. 91)
If Jones's commitment to the cult of experience paid off handsomely, in every sense, in From Here to Eternity (and rather less so in The Thin Red Line), it proved a literary disaster when he applied his "technique" of total saturation to postwar civilian life in the Midwest (Some Came Running, 1957) and, foolishly rushing in where Hemingway had dared to tread, to the sporting life (Go to the Widow-Maker, 1967). Without the organizing framework and moral architecture imposed by a military setting, Jones rambled and limped, pelted his readers with fatuous pseudo-profundities about art/life, and told them everything they didn't want to know about spearfishing, skin-diving, and sex, especially sex.
In his first two novels, Jones had been forced to cut out yards of sexual explicitness and foul-mouthing of the kind that was then considered impermissible. But when the repressive walls came tumbling down, it turned out that he had nothing different to offer, just a great deal more of the same. His male characters in Go to the Widow-Maker think of women no differently from the Schofield Barracks soldiers who crowd Mrs. Kipfer's whorehouse in From Here to Eternity. His women are either neurotic wives who don't know what they're missing or jolly hookers who love their line of work so much, they will even do it for nothing. Indeed, the anything-goes society of the 1960's proved more liability than liberation for Jones. (pp. 91-2)
After the clobbering he took for his one Paris novel, The Merry Month of May (trying to cope with intellectuals caught up in the Sorbonne riots of 1968, he was completely out of his depth), Jones sensibly turned again [in Whistle] to the military past where he belonged….
Four soldiers from the same infantry company make the long and painful journey together to Memphis (Jones calls it Luxor), and three of them, Jones reveals in an introductory note, are old friends, renamed from From Here to Eternity….
In the opening chapter of Whistle, an intensely charged meditation on the soldier's allegiance to his company, Jones writes with a passionate assurance that had evaded him for years, but after this splendid start, the novel disintegrates along with the company. When sex rears its head, as it does with paralyzing redundancy in Whistle—Memphis in wartime, as Jones remembers it, had an inexhaustible supply of doxies only too eager to please—everything else is obliterated, and the tedium becomes lethal.
Yet if one can manage to overlook his obsession with the mechanics of fornication, Jones is clumsily trying to explore in Whistle a phenomenon that no other contemporary American novelist I know of has touched upon. This is the atavistic force of male bonding…. That male bonding does exist in modern society is unarguable, however, and James Jones portrays its power in the fears of his wounded soldiers that the collapse of their company, that masculine confraternity of cojónes and valor and comradeship, will leave them vulnerable to a lonely and destructively separate fate….
An unregenerate anachronism to the last, Jones was immune on this issue, as on every other, to the promptings of the Zeitgeist. What the paleface considers unmentionable, this redskin did not hesitate to say. Jones had learned from experience that men can feel bereaved when army solidarity comes to an end, and what he had learned from experience was the only truth he knew. (p. 92)
Pearl K. Bell, "The Wars of James Jones" (reprinted from Commentary by permission; copyright © 1978 by the American Jewish Committee), in Commentary, April, 1978, pp. 90-2.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1009
From his first appearance on the literary scene with From Here to Eternity in 1951 …, Jones presented himself, and was viewed by critics, as a writer in whom art and life had synthesized. He possessed a distinct, if limited, talent as a novelist, and asked that his readers accept the honesty of his observations….
Jones was a late arrival in the ranks of those Philip Rahv labeled the "redskins" of our literature. Unlike their "paleface" rivals, the redskin writers were so distinctly American, so much the product of this culture, that even their harshest criticism could be easily absorbed into the American way of looking at things…. For Rahv, the redskin was "a self-made writer in the same way that Henry Ford was a self-made millionaire. On the one hand, he is a crass materialist, a greedy consumer of experience, and on the other a sentimentalist…." Jones is the very model of the redskin writer…. Our major redskin writers—Twain, Dreiser, Hemingway, Steinbeck—draw their metaphors from biology rather than literature…. But the situations one discovers in redskin novels are public and irremediable, even when they deal with the private individual. The redskin writer tends to see man as part of an inevitable process, ground down by fate or accident.
The limitations in James Jones's work are similar to those in Dreiser. Everything his critics have pointed to as weak is readily observable. He was unable to create concise scenes; he almost always portrayed reality as an affair of surfaces; he was nearly pre-Freudian, despite the awkward textbook psychologizing about life and sex that clots his work; his dialogue could be as wooden and repetitious as Dresier's …; his women never get beyond the sexual fantasies of an adolescent glued to the pornographic quiescence of his own musings …, and what passed for thought in his fiction invariably lacked complexity, yet it was presented as if Jones had struggled to arrive at insights which the reader considers hackneyed. Add to all of this problems of narration (the point-of-view and the narrative voice in Whistle shift for no apparent reason, at least none that I can see) and a deadly seriousness even in the face of the obviously comic and the case against Jones seems rather formidable….
With all that he could not do as a writer, Jones possessed a command of the novelistic situation that few contemporary writers possess. And he remains admirable for the persistence with which he forced a skeptical world to read him. Like his redskin ancestors, he insisted that we encounter life as the process that he had observed, and that we face, as honestly as he had faced, the absence of choice…. It was this stubborn insistence on putting down what he saw which makes him a serious writer, one whose work deserves the attention he demanded.
Jones's true subject was not the army but American masculinity. The army provided the most obvious examples of that subject, but in his better novels and stories he caught the ways in which an entire generation of American men thrust themselves against the world. Jones understood the manner in which the individual man was isolated, a solitary voice speaking to the nation's demands…. Jones never abandoned such individualism, not even in his best novel, The Thin Red Line, where the individual seems swallowed up in the collective movement of the army. But the movement is not really collective; it is, rather, the herding instinct of men who share only the terror of potential annihilation. (p. 405)
Whistle is a novel in which the army and the war exist merely as the setting in which men see themselves. The novel is about the consequences of manhood in America and the army hospital in which most of the action takes place simply indicates that Jones was unwilling to let go of the surfaces that knowledge of army life gave him. The hospital is like a battlefield in what it provides the novelist—a self-contained male world. (pp. 405-06)
We know that [Jones's four protagonists] are doomed from the start, and it is a further tribute to Jones's honesty, along with his refusal to manipulate his readers, that he does not really want us to feel sympathy for any of these men…. Taken together, the four men have the stamp of a collective authenticity, for they embody not individuals but conditions of existence….
Like Hemingway and Crane, Jones codified existence. The characters in Whistle have survived combat through wounds which are both physical and psychological. They struggle to hold on to their integrity as men. It is an integrity which can be defined by the individual alone, but they are forced to define themselves as a group, those who have been crippled in combat, because it is the only definition which separates them from the rest of the American world….
[Whistle] is a novel which contains all of [Jones's] characteristic weaknesses. At times, it is rhetorical, overblown, and sententious. It is filled with self-conscious profundities…. And yet, as often happens in a novel by James Jones, one [is] … willing to forgive even such prose for the sake of an honest novelistic vision. For there is so much else that James Jones gave us. Few other novelists were as capable of facing up to the exigencies of the situations they created. And few other novelists were as capable of taking American men on their own terms. Jones understood those aspects of life in America which forced men to redefine themselves constantly, to measure up or be damned. Like Hemingway, he was fascinated by the ability to endure pain; in Whistle, he invokes it almost as a religious value….
In this last of his novels, James Jones painted himself into a corner. But that seems characteristic of the man. Unlike many of his contemporaries, he lacked the capacity for literary irony and, fortunately for us, he never gave in to the temptations of rhetoric for very long. (p. 406)
Leonard Kriegel, "From the Infected Zones," in The Nation (copyright 1978 by the Nation Associates, Inc.), April 8, 1978, pp. 405-06.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1105
James Jones may have been the last prominent American novelist to suppose that fiction should be a virtually unmediated presentation of life, that material counts for more than craft….
Certainly the last and most important question one asks of a novel is not How is it done? but What does it know? To this extent Jones struck the right note when he wrote of Whistle, his last and not quite finished novel, that "it will say just about everything I have ever had to say, or will ever have to say, on the human condition of war and what it means to us, as against what we claim it means to us." But even if Jones was a novelist who aimed for, and often enough achieved, something beyond mastery of technique and style, no assessment of Whistle can avoid saying that it is a very badly written book….
Except for Landers, these are not characters who could be expected to be very eloquent or even articulate about what they know and feel, and Jones relies a great deal on explanatory narrative that stands close to their thoughts without purporting to reproduce them verbatim. But even with Landers the method keeps muffling or confusing the consciousness it means to explain to us:
But Landers knew there was something more. Something inside him. Aching to get out. There was something inside him aching to get out, but in a way that only a serious fight or series of serious fights would let it get out. Anguish. Love. And hate. And a kind of fragile, short-lived happiness. Which had to be short-lived, if he was going out of this fucking hospital and back into the fucking war. It had just built up in him.
There was no way on earth to explain it to anybody, though. Not without sounding shitty. There was no way to say it.
Here a method that means to be plain and unobtrusive becomes an obtrusion itself. There are indeed states of mind, complex or confused ones, that are hard to put into words, but in the text of a novel, an "it" that means both love and hate, anguish and happiness, looks lame. The passage may reproduce a credible human muddle, but it doesn't provide any way of examining and understanding it. "There was no way to say it" sounds as true of the author as of Landers.
Nor, if we recall the pungent, closely recorded passages of soldier-talk that provided the major excitement and pleasure of From Here to Eternity, is dialogue in Whistle very remarkable. There's not much of it, and what there is usually sounds lifeless….
Unlike From Here to Eternity, Whistle tries to conceal the presence of an impersonal narrator who is verbally more adroit than any of the characters, and Jones has to keep struggling with the problem of believable speech…. [The] major characters, whose minds the novel stays close to until the end, can't credibly be as articulate as the book sometimes needs them to be.
Again and again Jones stumbles over, and then usually backs away from, his need to say things that his characters could not have thought. (p. 30)
A curious kind of homogenizing seems to take place in Whistle. Along with their supposed differences in temperament, the characters come from different parts of the country—Winch from New England, Strange from Texas, Prell from West Virginia, Landers from the Middle West. Yet their speech and thought show scarcely a trace of regional accents and idioms. They think alike, they talk alike, they come to similarly dreadful acts of self-destruction….
Whistle is dedicated "to every man who served in the US Armed Forces in World War II," and it sustains this generously collective note by stressing what the characters have in common—their violent impulses, their hostility to noncombatants, their edgy concern for each othbr, the conflict between their fear of being killed and their deep, unexaminable need to "stay in," to keep on soldiering rather than return to a civilian world that doesn't need or understand them. This is a kind of madness, as Jones tries to show….
This fusing of identities in madness should not be dismissed as mere technical ineptness. Maybe the experience of war does challenge our rather complacent belief that the best, most important meanings are personal, private, individual ones, our insistence that collective selfhood is somehow inauthentic. For bookish civilians to try to think otherwise is an interesting exercise, if not a very cheering one. But it remains true that this novel's two most powerful moments of understanding are private and personal ones, and that both of them are given to the clerkly, introspective Landers and not to the less self-conscious professional soldiers he admires and tries to be like….
[All] the soldier's values as Jones represents them—professional competence, concern for comrades, pride in fighting, drinking, making love—matter only because they don't finally matter, because one does them freely, without caring or hoping for a return.
When Whistle tries to go beyond this sense that nothing matters in the end, a sense whose language is usually simple and confident, it gets soft and sentimental. We are too often invited to feel more for these soldiers than they would want to feel for themselves, as in the novel's bathetic ending (supplied by Willie Morris …), where the drowning Strange imagines that he's swelling up to oceanic, planetary, even galactic proportions and "taking into himself all of the pain and anguish and sorrow and misery that is the lot of all soldiers, taking it into himself and into the universe as well."
One hopes that had he lived to revise, Jones would have thought better of this. But there are enough other moments of rhetorical and philosophical inflation, moments that seem too conscious of an audience with literary expectations, to suggest an author who often mistrusted his own understanding of things. This is sad but not decisively so. Jones has surely to be counted as a minor novelist, one with a single subject and a limited control of his craft; but he knew what he knew wonderfully well, and in From Here to Eternity and The Thin Red Line, and intermittently in Whistle, he told us much about how the military life shapes and marks those who follow it. He can't be blamed for having had larger ambitions too, but these are not what he will be remembered for. (p. 31)
Thomas R. Edwards, "Something about a Soldier," in The New York Review of Books (reprinted with permission from The New York Review of Books; copyright © 1978 NYREV, Inc.), May 4, 1978, pp. 30-1.