[Explanation of Reading Journal Entries/Ratings]
A novel based on 1942’s Guadalcanal campaign of World War II, written by James Jones and published in 1962. I read a Book of the Month Club first edition.
3 out of 5 stars.
James Jones (1921 – 1977) wrote several novels, all of them concerned with some aspect of World War II. He may be best known for his first: From Here to Eternity (1952). He served in the Army during WWII, witnessing the attack on Pearl Harbor and seeing combat on Guadalcanal. In The Thin Red Line, he describes the first combat experiences of a group of American soldiers.
This book is an odd case for me. I first read it twelve years ago and declared it as one of my all-time favorites. I expected it to hold up on a second reading and instead struggled through. Giving it three stars is a stretch; the only reason I bumped it up from two is because I felt guilty giving a poor rating to such an intense partly-autobiographical story. I’m giving Jones credit for having lived through some of this.
The Thin Red Line may be better known for the 1998 Terrence Malick film version. Preparing for this entry I rewatched the movie. It’s beautifully filmed with an incredible score but fails in its casting (too many distracting big names getting glorified cameos; smaller actors’ roles – important to the book – reduced to nothing). Malick’s distinctive style overwhelms and alters the source material until its no longer recognizable to Jones’s novel. Trying to use one to describe the other is a useless exercise, except to say both are arduous experiences.
There are difficulties in the book: the tone is static; the narration jumps between characters’ minds (sometimes within a paragraph); each chapter is between fifty and a hundred pages with no section breaks; Jones is not a strong writer; the huge cast consists of men with indistinct, one-syllable names (we have 84 characters with names like: Stein, Spine, Stack, Storm, Stearns, Band, Bead, Beck, Bell, Blane, Gore, Grove, Keck, Kline, Kral, Krim, Culp, Culn, Cash, Catch, Catt, Carr, Dale, Doll, Darl, Welsh, Weld, Fife, Field, Fox, Fronk, Park, Potts). Jones is juggling a lot of characters and though he does a good job keeping the main ten or so straight, it’s a lot for a reader to keep track of.
Something I’ll give The Thin Red Line: Jones appears to be trying to give the most truthful representation of his experience as possible. He shows no rose-tinted comradery, we’re-the-good-guys unselfish sacrifice perspective. Instead there’s fear, confusion, depression, and anger among men who care most about their own survival and safety. Acts of selfless heroism are outliers, not the norm. Not because these are bad or honorless men, but because they’re humans coping with an insane situation. Here’s the problem (and I feel terrible saying this): it doesn’t make a very good read. We’re not getting a narrative with a beginning, middle and end. Character growth is lacking, story development is almost non-existent. We come in during the middle of an event and leave without seeing the greater picture’s end. We don’t know where any of our main cast came from and we know less about where they are going.