Wednesday, December 14, 2011

To the End of the War: Unpublished Fiction

Fans of James Jones, a writer well known for his powerful World War II fiction, have long been intrigued by his unfinished last novel, Whistle, wondering how different it might have been if he, and not Willie Morris, had finished it.  But if most of those fans are like me (someone who has read Whistle three times), they probably still give little thought to Jones’s unpublished first novel, They Shall Inherit the Laughter.  Intriguingly, that first novel has now (more or less) been published, and curious readers can decide for themselves whether the publishers of Jones’s day were correct to judge it “unpublishable.”

I use the term “more or less” published because of the manner in which this new book’s editor, George Hendrick, has prepared it for its long delayed release.  They Shall Inherit the Laughter is not being presented as a novel.  Rather, it has been re-titled To the End of the War: Unpublished Fiction, and its best bits have been recast as a series of interconnected short stories that are largely, and obviously, based on Jones’s personal experiences.  Johnny Carter, the protagonist of this short story collection, is simply James Jones under another name.

James Jones
Jones was bitter and cynical about his war experience by the time the military returned him to the U.S. to recover from wounds suffered in the Pacific.  Jones, well aware that he was just being patched up for reassignment to another combat unit, used his repatriation to the States as an opportunity to go AWOL, hiding for a while in his hometown of Robinson, Illinois.  He largely spent his time in Robinson drinking, womanizing, and seeking the company of combat veterans as disillusioned about the war effort as him.  All of this, in fictional format, is at the heart of what Johnny Carter experiences in these newly released “short stories.”

To the End of the War, one must remember, is very early James Jones.  However, even though it does not live up to the standard of Jones’s later work, it is a clear link to what was to come, both in theme and in style.  The book makes clear why Maxwell Perkins, despite refusing to publish They Shall Inherit the Laughter, saw enough in Jones to encourage him, if indirectly, in his second attempt at a novel, one that would become world famous as From Here to Eternity.   There are certainly enough flashes of the real thing here, particularly in the dialogue between Johnny Carter and other combat vets, to make To the End of the War a worthwhile reading experience for all fans of World War II fiction.

Rated at: 3.0

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