Thursday, August 18, 2005

Re-visiting Literary Loves of the Past, Part I: From Here To Eternity

Frank Wilson, editor of the Philadelphia Inquirer's Book Review pages,
notes with some dis-ease
that the significant novels of one's youth do not always stand up well when re-read in maturity. I experienced this first-hand last summer when I attempted to re-read From Here To Eternity.

It had been 20 years since I'd read it last. I was conscription age, and while I thought the "Be All That You Can Be" TV ads of that era (joined at the hip with the soft-sell gay porn of Top Gun) were an unpleasant joke, FHTE offered such a direct appeal to my warped, testosterone-drenched sentimentality, it could have been effectively used to recruit me.

FHTE is a perverse work of romantic nihilism, celebrating fuck-ups of the first order. Every character qualifies as one, and every character is presented with a warped sort of grandeur. The sole exception is the cuckold, Lieutenant Holmes. Holmes is a dandy and a pantywaist who silently acknowledges that virtues such as nobility and honor are a sham, albeit a politically useful sham. And so he consciously polishes the facade; the violent men under his command obey him (usually - it's more a matter of personal honor to stoically put up with the Army's absurd command structure), but seethe with a profound and very personal loathing.

I could dig it. As a young man with no time for adult compromise, I was ready to sign on - not out of any sense of patriotism, understand, or perceived duty to anything larger than myself, but to express the full and final potential of my humanity in, as Jones said, "those greatest and most heroic of all human endeavors, WAR and WARFARE".

Dumb, dumb, dumb. Reading Jones 20 years later I could see the author was not without a sense of irony, even if he did lack all sense of subtlety. Purple prose, overwrought emotional reactions (usually by women), an unshakeable commitment to the melodramatic. And the characters... today Pfc Prewitt doesn't read as "tragically misunderstood"; he reads as a nitwit and a jerk. Sargeant Warden fares worse.

Embarrassed by this staggering lapse in my youthful taste, I let the book drop from my fingers. I picked it up again this morning, just to see if it was as bad as all that. Third analysis: not quite. I can understand why I liked it so much at the time. All that forbidden fruit, laid out like a smorgasbord: sex, violence, a Tsunami of alcohol, and always with the language - all wrapped up in a weird-o sense of masculine identity. When Pearl Harbor finally gets hit, the chief emotion expressed by these yahoos (and their women) is relief/elation, followed by contempt for the squares who are sending them out to fight. Like any 19-year-old, I was terrifically anxious and impatient. I had no memory of Pearl Harbor; heck, I had no real memory of Khe Sahn. For me, FHTE was of a piece with Batman: The Dark Knight Returns - violent punk catharsis, absent a larger life perspective.

I survived the next two decades. I lived long enough to see my nephews drink up Fight Club with the sort of angry thirst I had for FHTE (curious how the Amazon customer rating for FHTE and FC reaches four-and-a-half stars, no?). And even though mid-life seems to be clearing my cultural palette of nuanced pastels in favor of the primary colors, I hold out hope that my hunger for literature will unearth a few works truly worth my reverent attention. So far, so good.


DarkoV said...

That's quite a progression from FHTE to BOTL, although the level of anger, albeit aimed at very different targets, is relatively high in both books. My hook into wartime stories started with Irwin Shaw's "The Young Lions" and then Jones' "The Thin Red Line". Going backwards to "All Quiet on the Western Front" and then herky-jerky to Solzhenitsyn's "Gulag Archipelago", "The First Circle", and "November 1916". Somewhere in there was tucked a more contemporary war novel, say like O'Brien's "Going after Cacciato".
Luckily, I tripped across "Catch-22", one of three books that greatly affected my outlook on life (BOTL and Richler's "Joshua Then and Now" being the other two). My dad then blew off the dust of "Good Soldier Schweik" and I was off, looking at war and life with a more jaundiced and sense-of-the-ridiculous eye.
But, I slip back some days and still get a kick out of reading a curse-filled, authority-debunking, blood splattered war novel. Swofford's "Jarhead" was a clumsy, awkward, and enjoyable read. Is this a "guy" thing? I've never been in the military, but there's always a nagging thought in the (thankfully) diminished adolescent part of my brain telling me it was a rite of passage (sense of duty) that I should have gone through. Your thoughts, please.

Whisky Prajer said...

I suspect the majority of males are hardwired with such instincts. I wonder, too, if there aren't societies/cultures that have designed a military rite of passage that gets their young bucks through the testosterone-twitterpations with a minimum of harm inflicted on them, or others. If you read a novel like Steven Pressfield's Gates of Fire (recommended, BTW), then follow that up with Paul Fussell's The Great War & Modern Memory you get a very quick and disturbing picture of the disconnect between our society and its military, military tradition and technological revolution. I'm not at all confident the western military experience can provide a reasonable rite of passage to maturity. The survivors are more likely to resemble the poisonously enraged Fussell, or Jones.

Catch-22 and Schweik are absolutely required reading, I think.