Tuesday, July 19, 2011
Review: The Thin Red Line by James Jones
Is there anything more American than the glorification of World War II and, more specifically, the United States' role in it? I would argue not. Look at the wide collection of popular culture offerings, from Band of Brothers (great), to Pearl Harbor (terrible), to the absurd number of WWII video games created since video games have existed. Hell, even the term "The Greatest Generation" was coined to describe those who grew up in the Great Depression and fought in WWII. If there is anything that defines World War II it is 1a) American Exceptionalism and 1b) its glorification and the glorification of the soldiers who fought in it.
This runs counter to Vietnam, Korea, now Iraq and Afghanistan, or even World War I, where much of the works are cynical or even flat-out negative. Watch Platoon or The Hurt Locker after watching Saving Private Ryan and tell me the tone is the same. All too often, WWII movies make their characters this impossible amalgamation of fearless Norse gods of war coupled with the prototypical crafty American underdog. Glossed over is the terror of being shot at, mortared, grenaded, or bombed by individuals whose sole purpose of existence is to make sure you die. Works covering other wars don't have this issue, but most covering WWII (especially the Western Front) do.
Enter The Thin Red Line. This novel, on which the movie of the same title is based, follows Charlie Company during the Guadalcanal Campaign in the Pacific Theater of WWII. It starts with them on a ship immediately before transport to the island and finishes with American victory on the island. During this time period, "C for Charlie" goes from combat virgins to relatively battle hardened men who have all experienced shots fired in anger. The interesting part of this novel is watching them slowly progress from the former to the latter.
If you like to read military books because of the tactics, this novel is probably not for you. The small skirmishes, the battles, and even the war itself is not the point of The Thin Red Line. What is important here is the effect of all of those things have on an individual's psyche. The Thin Red Line is essentially a character study of the way war affects a company of men who have never stepped foot in a war zone before. The results are about as varied as one would expect. There are almost equal numbers of displays of bravery, cowardice, cruelty, and glory-seeking. There are lesser amounts of friendship and kindness among the men.
The characters and their development are the draw here. For all intents and purposes, the war and fighting is merely a vehicle to drive these characters to change. Watching them go from smooth-cheeked young men to battle-hardened veterans over the five-hundred'ish pages is very rewarding.
Jone's writing throughout is relatively concise and to the point. Even when relatively important characters are killed in action, there is no grieving or hammering the point. This suits the cynical atmosphere and theme of the book well, as there should be no point in dwelling on a cog in a machine that can be replaced immediately.
This cynicism is reflected not only in the writing itself, which sometimes drifts into dark humor, but in the minds of the men themselves. The terror that comes at first with their entrance into battle turns to shock and apathy. Many of the men realize that they are not cowards, but only because they have come to the know that they and their lives mean virtually nothing in the grand scheme of things. This is certainly a different way of portraying WWII soldiers' way of think than in most other popular works.
Just a note: for those of you who don't want your sensibilities offended, this book isn't for you. It includes acts of extreme violence (duh), lots and lots of profanity, sexual content, and some just general grossness (think rotting corpses, dragging entrails, etc.). None of this bothered me, but some of you might be more squamish, so keep this in mind.
What did I think of the book? I really enjoyed it, especially as a counterpoint to many of the other WWII books I've read. It is a gritty, realistic portrayal of the way war deeply affects the bodies and minds of human beings. I was really impressed with The Thin Red Line and definitely will be seeking out the movie. Do I recommend it? Yep, especially if you're remotely interested in war novels. You don't need to know military strategy, tactics, or ranks to enjoy it (though the latter is helpful).
I give The Thin Red Line by James Jones eight out of ten stars.
I realize that reviews have been sparse recently and apologize for the lack of content. Life, as it tends to, has sprung up and massively reduced my free time. Regardless, the next book chosen is Falconer by John Cheever. I'm not familiar with this novel at all, so we'll see how it goes.
In other news, I'll be starting a new beer blog next week called A Beer a Day. The title pretty much gives the theme away, but check out the initial post describing it if you're interested. While you're at it, you can 'Like' the blog on Facebook (pretty please?) and follow on Twitter. I'm starting it to separate the beer and book content, uncluttering this blog a bit. Plus it just sounded fun.
Additionally, I will be joining the wonderful crew at CincyVoices, primarily writing articles about good beer with @brewnas, but it looks like I'll have relative independence to write about other topics which pique my interest. It's going to be a great opportunity to team up with such a knowledgeable individual on all things beer related. I'm going to learn a lot and have a great deal of fun doing it!
As always, thank you all so much for reading! It would sure be boring to write these reviews if no one was interested.