After World War II there was a rush by writers to throw off their uniforms , blow the dust off their typewriters, and write the GREAT AMERICAN NOVEL. There were four big contenders two of which came out in 1948, The Naked and the Dead and The Young Lions. The other two came out a few years later From Here to Eternity and The Caine Mutiny.
All four were blockbuster bestsellers and were sold to Hollywood to make movies. The desire by the public for those weighty World War Two books was nearly insatiable. I have had the pleasure to read three of the four of these books. The Caine Mutiny I read and reviewed this year and was surprised at how much I liked it. The Naked and the Dead I read fifteen years ago and remember it being clunky with brief blips of brilliance. Norman Mailer staked most of his reputation on that book and I can’t believe as he got older he didn’t get itchy fingers to go back through that book and streamline the narrative. From Here to Eternity I have not read, but for those of you that have been following my reading progress long enough you can probably guess I will be reading it.
John Cheever knew Irwin Shaw and I recently read the Bailey bio Cheever which recorded a few of John’s reactions to Shaw. Cheever had attempted to have a Hollywood career with very disappointing results especially early on, but Shaw on the other hand embraced Hollywood and was hauling wheelbarrows full of cash out of Hollywood a situation thatCheever could only dream about.Shaw had the flashy clothes, the sporty cars, and the girls pretty enough to be mistaken for starlets. He was LIVING LARGE. Cheever had every right to be mystified and jealous of Shaw’s success.
”My father’s a black market grocer,
My mother makes illegal gin,
My sister sells sin on the corner,
Kee-rist, how the money rolls in!”
If Shaw had been so fortunate to have the great Maxwell Perkins as his editor this book might have ended up mentioned in the same breath asThe Great Gatsby. Oddly enough Perkins’s last great find was James Jones. A young man he convinced to abandon the novel he was working on and start working on From Here to Eternity. Unfortunately Perkins died in 1947 so his editing genius did not come into play on From Here to Eternity. Now Irwin Shaw is a great writer, in fact I remember reading two of his short stories in college"The Eighty-Yard Run" and "The Girls in Their Summer Dresses," and they were excellent. Some might even say they are classics. From some of the commentary I have read those who know better than me feel that Shaw excelled at the short form of writing.
An earnest, Young Irwin Shaw
The thing of it is you don’t become famous, generally, for writing short stories. Nobody talks about writing the GREAT AMERICAN SHORT STORY. You can be respected and whispered about at cocktail parties and even land a nice teaching gig at a prestigious college with the bonus of fawning coeds, but you will always look with longing at the figure of the writer that walks into the room and at least has the illusion that he has written a great American novel (and yes I’m thinking of Norman Mailer). Plus there is the added irritation of everyone saying great story in the New Yorker, but when are you going to write a novel?
Irwin Shaw had everything he needed to write the Great American Novel. He shot photography during the war which provided a wonderful source of material. He developed three wonderful characters with different backgrounds which allowed Shaw to explore all aspects of human nature and cultural divides. He wrote these sparkling, witty conversations and showed an understanding of psychology and desire. Most important of all he had THE WAR to provide the epic backdrop to display the human pageantry at its best and worst.
He wrote a great novel.
A novel that needed a trim...just a smidgen off the top...we aren’t talking Thomas Wolfe hedge clippers just a pair of scissors that could snip a little here and a little there.
The scope of what he took on in this novel is simply astounding. I can only imagine the wrestling matches he had with his own brain to keep the faith and keep banging away at the keys. I can only speculate as to the copious amounts of alcohol that was required to keep him feeding more pages into the maw of the tiger. In fact I’m thinking if I keep writingI’m going to need stiff martini to get to the meat of this review.
As I mentioned earlier there are three fascinating characters that Shaw created to build his plots around. The first was Noah Ackerman, a newlywed, who at first is classified 4F because of scars on his lungs, but as the war goes on he is reclassified. The scars on his lungs have miraculously disappeared as the Army finds itself in need of more and more bodies. He feels he has a bigger stake in the war because he is Jewish.After meeting and marrying his darling Hope his desire to go to war has been greatly reduced, but once he is at basic training he is determined to show everyone that Jews are worthy to be in this fight. He is disappointed to discover that the majority of the men he is training with are anti-semitic and feel that Jews are the reason they have been drafted.
Montgomery Clift as Noah Ackerman in the movie version
One exception is Michael Whiteacre a producer of plays who turned down all offers from the people he is connected with to land a cushy commission. He is determined to go into the army as a buck private. As one friend said to him. ”You won’t be content until you get a bullet in the balls.” Whiteacre quickly regrets his decision once he finds out that the men that will be forming up his company are mostly made up of uneducated hillbillies who spend most of their minuscule brain power trying to find new ways to torture Noah. The glamorous life he took for granted: drinking gin martinis, squiring a bevy of beauties from one hotspot to the next, and engaging in shallow, but entertaining conversations with writers does not translate to the Army.The skills he had in civilian life that made him comfortably wealthy are of little value to the military.He swallows his pride and makes a call to a friend who pulls some strings and gets him attached to a group providing entertainment to the troops overseas.
Dean Martin as Michael Whiteacre in the movie version.
When Michael Whiteacre comes before the draft board, consisting of pinched, gray faced old men it reminded me of a guy I used to work for named Norm.Whenever my Dad didn’t have me on a tractor or stacking hay or delivering salt blocks to pastures I would run over to the local greenhouse and see if Norm had anything for me to do. Usually I planted trees or mixed up planting soil or unpacked boxes of plants. With his greenhouse he also had a flea market and ever so often there would be a crate of books that Norm had bought usually with a whole load of other crap. Norm didn’t ever buy books on purpose. He always allowed me to take whatever books I wanted. He also paid me a pittance that at least could keep gas in my 1972 Pontiac LeMans.
One day Norm was out helping me dig irrigation channels and said out of the blue that he used to own a grocery store. He was called into the draft board for Korea which was surprising since he was on the high end of the age requirements. Chairing the draft board was his competitor who we will just call Greedy Bastard. Now GB owned the only other grocery store in the county and after he sent Norm in the army to dig missile silos in South Dakota he doubled the size of his store. Norm had to close his store and move his mother, who he supported, in with one of his siblings. When he was discharged from the army, where I’m sure he performed some wonderful shovel work for the government, he just didn’t have the capital to compete against GBs store anymore.It took years and years for him to scrape together enough money to finally open the greenhouse. He wasn’t alone I’ve heard many other stories about decisions made by draft boards that may have been more personal than professional.
The third character is Christian Diestl, a German soldier who was a ski instructor before the war. He comes under the influence of a Lieutenant Hardenberg. A man he despises, but begins to admire. Hardenberg is always sharing his version of soldier wisdom. ”Horror would not annoy a soldier any more than the sight of a hammer annoys a carpenter. It is sentimental to pretend that horror is not the tool of the soldier, just as the hammer is the tool of the carpenter. We live off death and the threat of death and we must take it calmly and use it well.... Eventually I came to enjoy killing, as a pianist enjoys the Czerny which keeps his fingers limber for the Beethoven.
When Christian gets leave to go to Berlin, Hardenberg sends him with a gift to give his wife. When Christian meets Gretchen Hardenberg he becomes obsessed with her. He wanted to devour her and all her thoughts, possessions, vices, desires.She is living a lifestyle much different from her former life as a school teacher. She has beaus from Generals down to Corporals. She tells them what she wants and they provide it in the hopes that they can spend more time with her. Christian is no exception.
Marlon Brando as Christian Diestl in the movie version
Diestl turns out to be a good soldier, a man I even admired early in the book, but as his sense of honor is eroded and his intent to survive outweighs all other considerations he becomes a manthat finds he has a knack for killing and adjusting back to civilian life would not only be difficult, but nearly impossible. He does speculate about his life after the war and realizes that aman with no conscious is still very useful even in peacetime to those willing to pay to have problems disappear. Shaw shows how war will take this average man and turn him into a stone cold killer, a man unfit to live amongst us anymore.
Communism is touched on. Whiteacre is denied the opportunity to go to officer training later in the novel because he once donated money to a communist cause in Spain. Diestl is also denied a much needed transfer back to Berlin, to be near Gretchen, because he had once belonged to the Communist party. Both sides were already more than suspicious of any hint of Communist attachment.
Women are not depicted in the best light in this novel, most are opportunistic, unfaithful, and treacherous, not exactly my vision of the prettier half of THE GREATEST GENERATION. As our protagonists work their way across Europe there are whole hosts of married women in England, France, and Germany who provide companionship for each new wave of soldiers while their husbands are probably off in Africa, Italy, Russia or France sleeping with someone else’s wife. Wives back home are writing letters explaining the new baby that arrived even though their husband has been away at war for two years. World War Two might have been one of the largest wife swapping events in the history of the world, or at least Shaw would lead one to think so.
1958 Movie Poster
Shaw handles the three plot lines deftly. I did not find myself frustrated as I have been with other books when the author trundles away from a more interesting plot line to pick up the threads of another.I was hooked from the beginning to see how Shaw intended to bring the three plot lines together.The movie is reported to be not as grim as the novel, which doesn't surprise me, but I am looking forward to seeing it. I feel there was an opportunity missed to write a magnificent novel; but even so, I enjoyed the novel immensely and will even say it had moments of greatness.
If you would like to read what I thought about the other World War Two blockbuster The Caine Mutiny my review is here My Caine Mutiny Review