When James Jones died in 1977, he left the not-quite-finished final volume of a World War II trilogy begun in 1951 with the publication of From Here to Eternity, and continued with The Thin Red Line in 1962. From Here to Eternity dealt with the peacetime regular army; The Thin Red Line moved on with the combat troops; Whistle deals with wounded, weary, and confused men whose combat days are over. Jones uses an army hospital as the background for this novel because it is as self-contained a male world as a battlefield is.
Despite the current realistic view and more thoughtful attitude toward war (a view that conceivably could revert to the traditional popular concept of warfare, in response to another “Pearl Harbor”), Jones still stubbornly focuses on the simplistic, old-fashioned belief that bravery under fire, the comradeship of fellow soldiers, and a combat-induced male bonding, are the essence of life and death. Jones cannot see the irony and black humor of war that Heller wrote about in Catch 22. To Jones, the battlefield is a field of glory; he does not recognize the booby traps of military bureaucracy, the Pentagon mind, or the culpability of self-righteous and ambitious men who maneuver others into becoming casualty counts. His is the male world of the warring, whoring, drinking, brawling enlisted man; a world in which there is no room for sensitivity or polish. In his apotheosizing of the military, Jones’s subject is not really the army; he is exploring the essence of maleness and is most comfortable in describing a male-dominated arena.
Jones was a distinctly American writer in his way of looking at things, his pride in being self-taught, in being drawn to that which he fears. The careless syntax, overabundance of four-letter non sequiturs, and a tendency to overdo specific anatomical description in the ubiquitous sex scenes, are annoying and add nothing to the pace of the story, although one senses that Jones thought they added authenticity. Yet there is an awkward integrity in his treatment of the material. Jones was always honest with the reader.
The four protagonists are doomed from the start. Jones shows them to us as a group, yet as individuals they do get a hearing and a measure of our understanding, in spite of the fact that we might not really like them; Jones does not expect us to. They are powerless to survive as individuals in the face of the insecurity of nonmilitary life, yet they sense that they must separate.
Writer Willie Morris, Jones’s close friend, has completed the book. In his Introduction, Morris writes:Whistle was to have had thirty-four chapters. Jones had completed somewhat more than half of Chapter 31 when he again became seriously ill. However, he had already plotted in considerable, and indeed almost finished detail his remaining material.
In tape recordings and conversations with me over several months prior to his death, he left no doubt of his intentions for the concluding three chapters. As late as two days before he died he was speaking into a tape recorder in the hospital.
Morris has succeeded in effecting a smooth transition; he has maintained Jones’s style in the addition. In his author’s note, Jones wrote that the idea for Whistle was conceived as far back as 1947 while he was working with his editor, Maxwell Perkins, on From Here to Eternity. Three decades and several disastrous novels later, Jones returned to his own experiences (he spent some months in an army hospital in Memphis in 1943) and drew on his own memory for this final work.
Three of the protagonists in Whistle, according to Jones, are the reincarnation of those in the two earlier parts of the trilogy. He writes (sic): “In ’The Thin Red Line’, 1st/Sgt Warden became 1st/Sgt Welsh, Pvt Prewitt became Pvt Witt, Mess/Sgt Stark became Mess/Sgt Storm. While remaining the same people as before. In ’Whistle’ Welsh becomes Mart Winch, Witt becomes Bobby Prell, Storm becomes John Strange.”
As the story opens, Jones, through the voice of patients from...
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