Jones is particularly good at describing enlisted men. This virtuosity, prominent in his earlier novel, From Here to Eternity (1951), can be seen throughout The Thin Red Line. In fact, these two books form the first two parts of a trilogy about World War II, despite their publication eleven years apart; the third book in the trilogy, Whistle, was not published until 1978. Jones’s fame as a writer will probably ultimately rest upon these three books—they are his major achievement. Jones knew his recruits very well, and few other writers about World War II can match him in probing their psychology. Jones is also quite good with his officers, although he tends to view them from the enlisted man’s point of view. Captain Stein, Captain Gaff, and Lieutenant Colonel Tall are complex characters, their motivations subtly, probingly investigated. It is natural to compare Jones’s novel to Norman Mailer’s The Naked and the Dead (1948): Mailer’s fictitious Pacific island, Anopopei, and Jones’s Guadalcanal closely resemble each other, Mailer’s Colonel Cummings and Jones’s Tall perform very similar functions, and the two authors share an animus against the battalion commanders. Although Tall lacks the paraphernalia of a “Time Machine” to fill in his background, he is just as sharply drawn, vivid, and complex as Cummings. The portrait of Captain Stein is fuller still, and one of the most sensitive depictions of a company commander in World War II literature.
Jones’s recruits, as noted above, are drawn with even more exactness and a surer knowledge or experience. Most of the members of C-for-Charlie Company are recruits. The realism of these portraits is open to no doubt—the pertinent question to ask, instead, is, How interesting are they? Though lifelike and...
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