Mister Roberts is an ancestor of such works as Joseph Heller’s Catch-22 (1961). What Mister Roberts embodies—and this has also been absorbed by Heller—is the irreverent tone of the novel and its sometimes stunning mix of the wildly comic and the deeply tragic. The often sudden switch from verbal comedy or even slapstick to dramatic is something many may readily identify with Catch-22 and the film MASH (1970) in which death, pain, passion, and foolishness follow one another very quickly.
Mister Roberts, published in 1946, is certainly one of the first texts to deal with the U.S. military, patriotism, and heroism, in the context of World War II, with something less than rigid respect. At least half of Thomas Heggen’s novel is comic and satiric, designed to amuse the reader and make fun of military procedure, structures, and what passes for military service in some contexts.
Occasionally, the comedy in Mister Roberts is very broad, almost surreal. The name of the ship, the USS Reluctant, and the names of Pacific Ocean islands it passes or visits (Apathy, Tedium, Ennui, Elysium, and the Limbo Islands), are conceived as either humorous description or parody of the strange names of the real Pacific islands that figured in campaigns waged during the war.
Many of the comic activities in Mister Roberts are things associated with the lighter side of military life: discussions about sex, parties fueled by homemade alcoholic beverages, practical jokes, conspiracies against difficult officers, and gambling. In the novel’s last half, Heggen changes his tone radically in several instances, and this narrative move toward tragedy culminates in the title character’s death. Heggen’s narrative takes a serious turn with the story of Big Gerhart’s bullying of one of the young seamen, Red Stevens, who had shipped out fourteen months after his marriage. Gerhart is a man who delights in being cruel to those seemingly weaker than he; in the chapter devoted to the confrontation between him and Stevens, he is first seen mistreating a dog. Later, looking...
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