Tuesday, October 29, 2013

From Here to Eternity by James Jones

From Here to Eternity
by James Jones
1952 National Book Award
5 stars - epic

ALR Green - one tense, very brief dog scene, but no dogs injured

I can still tell you the exact location on my mother's book shelves of both The Thin Red Line and From Here to Eternity. I read The Thin Red Line as a teenager but never had the stamina for its predecessor.

First and foremost, forget about that dumb movie. Blech. The epic beach scene? So totally not how things actually went down.

At over 850 pages, reading this novel is a commitment and there were times when I thought to give up. Not because it is bad, but it was very uncomfortable in many sections. The story takes place at an army base on Hawaii in the months leading up to the attack on Pearl Harbor. Mr. Jones, a WW II veteran, draws extensively on his personal experience to provide us with an unflinching account of what went on in the army and how it affected individual soldiers.

I didn't find any characters to like. These are bored, young men, far away from home. They spend a lot of time drunk, they gamble, they visit whore houses, and they perform acts of violence against each other just for sport. 

But make no mistake, you are there. Mr. Jones provides us with details about the thoughts and motivations of the men. These guys struggle with life and sometimes I wanted to just slap some sense into them while others I wanted to air lift them back home where they could enjoy a bit of normalcy.

The depiction of women and homosexuals was hard to stomach. Both groups are relegated to the role of whore in one way or another. The women are desperate, clinging beings who use sex as a tool and the homosexuals are equally needy and willing to pay the soldiers in alcohol just to get company. The soldiers, to a man, use the women and homosexuals to satisfy their own desires without ever considering them anything approaching peers. 

The main characters are all enlisted men. Officers float around the periphery, but they don't play much of a role in the day to day. Mr. Jones apparently spent some time in the stockades himself and while the reader might want to think the stockade scenes are exaggerated, I think not. 

We can watch all the happy, buddy movies about the military we want, but I suggest that From Here to Eternity be required reading for anybody who knows somebody in uniform. Being thrown together with strangers, with no privacy, and few escapes, and subjected daily to a hierarchy that cannot be questioned is unimaginable. The men evolve in many ways through the course of the book and it is apparent how the environment forces them into actions that would never have occurred to them in a more normal setting.

Now to be honest, I doubt I will re-read From Here to Eternity (the normal requirement for a five star rating). So why five stars? It's a freakin' masterpiece of writing, that's why. You might not like what Mr. Jones has to say, but damn if he doesn't say it well.

Early on the novel, when Mr. Jones is describing the day to day in a peace time barracks, he brings up the topic of "fatigue duty." This is the routine of keeping the place cleaned up and is called "fatigue" because of its endlessness. It reminded me of housework.

It is the knowledge of the unendingness and of the repetitious uselessness, the do it up so it can be done again, that makes Fatigue fatigue.


  1. You know, I can't say I've ever read this one, either, and I can't seem to psych myself up for it, either.

  2. Wow. It sounds intense. I'm reminded of The Red Badge of Courage, which I'm reading because it was mentioned in the paper as this year's Scranton Reads selection. That was set in the Civil War, and it's just about the day to day life of a soldier, any soldier. It's a sometimes tedious but very fascinating read about the realities of military life, and probably still relevant today.

  3. If you are of a mind to read Norman Mailer's The Naked and the Dead (not that I recommend it), read Mailer first. Once you've read Jones, you will not be able to wade through Mailers' sophomoric, tedious, preachy tome. At the end of 900 pages of From Here to Eternity, I was sorry to see the book end. After 50 pages of The Naked and the Dead, I feared that it never would.

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