COMMON practice is to say that James Jones' talent spectacularly declined after his first success. This statement, however, is misleading: Jones' talent was not primarily a literary one and consisted of being in the right army camp before the right war.
The resulting work- From Here to Eternity- was considered by Mailer to be the best post-war American novel; it is also one of the best novels of any time and country dealing with military life. Its virtues are its breadth, its honesty, and its passion. Jones was a dogface like the misfits and unhappy conformists he wrote about, and his bludgeoning style proved appropriate for depicting men of unexpected intelligence thrown into situations where long-hidden sensitivities are laid bare. The excitement of From Here to Eternity lay in the author's recognition that his spirit of negation was not a symptom of languor or hopelessness, but of a conscious anti-social bent. The awkward writing did not seriously flaw the novel's tone of anguished experience: Jones was justifying his existence through the printed word. The drama he evoked out of his own sweat and blood and pathos was at times self-pitying and sentimental: the tragedy that such emotions are inherent in a situation which equates discipline with human mechanization. Jones swung wildly, taking on the military as he vanguard of a new technological state: but his authority of time and setting made one swallow his statements, and swallow them hard. History has vindicated his peachiness.
When From Here to Eternity was published, Jones became the wealthiest novelist of his generation, and one of the most acclaimed. As a matter of American business course, he began to run for Mailer's cultural presidency. The search for the drama of willful men, the sensitivity to dialogue and detail that distinctively marked his treatment of strained human relationships, disappeared in glamorous eyewash: society seemed to be pilloried only for profit. What emerged unscathed from Jones' commercialization were his least savory qualities. It soon became apparent that Jones had written Warden into From Here to Eternity not so much as an indication that even a tough Top Sergeant could get screwed if he attempted to run his platoon humanely, but rather as a corrective to the weaknesses of noble, yet love-lorn and defeated, Prewitt, Realist Warden was always in a commanding position; idealist Prewitt never had that chance. Whatever influences ran through Jones' mind, the hard-driving male delighting in war and sport became more obviously and simplistically the author's romantic hero. Compassion gave way to cynicism; where it survived it was mawkish and self-conscious. (Minelli was kinder to the small-town whore and gambler in Some Came Running than Jones was in his book, though both were negligible works.)
JONES has not for a decade been considered a major novelist, but the reason is no longer the race he runs with the bitch goddess. He's made his pile and is sitting on it, while continuing to practice his craft in his own idiosyncratic fashion, producing works of dubious value but vast pathological interest. Jones' mind hasn't broadened, and he's never again found a situation where the catalogue approach to literature has proved applicable. But by viewing his later works, one may see the author's progression from hard-boiled anarchist to embittered sexual contender to kind-hearted hanger-on of civilization's coattails.
In The Merry Mouth of May, Jones is still playing his role-switching games, as if the changing of narrators could create meaningful ambiguity where his sympathies are all too clear. Egomania has overcome Jones' perspective, and he creates only caricatures which, taken all together, add up to a jig-saw portrait of Jones himself. The Jack Hartley who tells this story of sexual gamesmanship set in Paris during the May '68 strike is Jones masquerading as sophisticated literary figure, editor of "The Two Islands Review" (founded after "George's" Paris Review went soft), and Boswell to an American expatriate named Harry T. Gallagher. Gallagher is Jones as celebrity author and sexual psychopath-though his tentative adventures with a bi-sexual Negress nymphomaniac are so scantily drawn as to give the impression that Jones has mellowed with his marriages-yea, even become family-minded and moralistic. To read Gallagher-Hartley dialogue is to watch an author's dark urges confront his brighter ones, the latter, of course, winning out. After all, this is a Book-of-the-Month. The supporting characters-wives, mistresses, children-all sound like drillmasters.
BUT THE book is more than grotesque. It is extremely sad and saddening. It seems a real attempt by an old hellraiser with his battles way behind him to come to grips with students intent upon acting out utopian fantasies, rather than revel in the righteousness of the persecuted. All he produces, however, is fantastic confusion. The sex scenes seem, at times, consciously parodistic, as do the depictions of Jones' detached intelligentsia. Jones' characters laughably strive to look forevermore-exotic features of the human sexuality, and the "fuck or be fucked" psychology that goes with their struggling; while their individualistically "radical" political ideologies are considerably less flexible, if just as masturbatory. Jones doesn't know what to make of a world where differentiations are not as clear as those between enlisted men and officers; in searching wildly for epiphanies, he runs himself down every possible dead end.
There are, of course, some who will be sucked into buying the book because of its ostensible subject matter. Thus, it should be emphasized that Jones recounts very little of importance about the strike activities. Harry Gallagher being a prosperous screenwriter, and his son "a major in cinema and sociology" at the Sorbonne, Jones' accounts of riots and forums are centered about the Cinema Committee. I don't know how verite his depiction is: it certainly does not jive with the strike film that was actually produced. And it is doubtful that anyone agreed to let a trench-coated Hollywoodian develop a love-storyline to attract international filmgoers (one which is, supposedly, scrapped).
There are few direct observations of Dany La Rouge or the other student leaders; Jones mainly seems disappointed that they developed from anarchism to Marxism-Leninism to Maoism. Jones skirts most of the political conflicts, reacting superficially to DeGaulle's and Pompidou's TV speeches. (Either they looked strong or they stammered.) The only important elements he captures are those of climate and man-in-the-street opinion, of the restlessness brought on by balmy days and the solidarity shown by a humane people when their children are brutalized.
IN SHORT, Jones has fulfilled another obligation on his Delacorte contract, but has done nothing to avert the further trampling of a reputation For pithy commentary, one must turn to the Victor Hugo quote on the bookjacket:
Who stops revolutions half-way?