I just finished reading James Jones’ Whistle, the final novel of his World War II trilogy. A couple of months ago, I read the second in the trilogy The Thin Red Line. I didn’t think Jones could top that one. But he did, as a storyteller and a writer. Whistle is cleaner, tighter. The way he moves from one character’s perspective to another is sheer mastery. How does he do it? I wonder. How can he weave the four main characters into the web that keeps getting more complex and more heart wrenching? I want to begin reading the first book of the trilogy From Here to Eternity right now (it’s on top of the pile of books by my bedside), but there is another part of me that needs to linger inside this final novel by Jones’. I don’t want to move too fast to something else; this would seem disrespectful to the four characters I have come to love, who have led me on a journey to places I’ve never been. I don’t want to leave them, yet. I don’t want to leave the last words Jones wrote.
Jones had three chapters to complete, but he died of congestive heart failure before he finished Whistle. He knew how he wanted the novel to end and wrote copious notes. As I turned the pages nearing the last words written by Jones, a sadness crept into me. I was nearing the end of something greater than the novel I held in my hands. I was reading the last of a great novelist. Each word, each piece of dialogue, each action of the character became the most important thing in the world to me. I don’t think I’ve ever read a novel that the author didn’t finish. Then the asterisks appeared, signaling the beginning of Jones’ notes, not the finished writing. And the sadness inside me deepened. Whistle is about the coming together of four wounded soldiers who fought together in the Pacific (four of the characters in The Thin Red Line), who are shipped out on the same hospital ship back to the States, who find themselves in the same hospital, and then the breaking apart of these wounded men. Four characters I have come to love in a most haunting way.
Jones stated in the last paragraph of “A Note by the Author”: “There is not much else to add. Except to say that when Whistle is completed, it will surely be the end of something. At least for me. The publication of Whistle will mark the end of a long job of work for me. Conceived in 1946, and began in the spring of 1947, it will have taken me nearly thirty years to complete. It will say just about everything I have to say, or will ever have to say, on the human condition of war and what it means to us, as against to what we claim it means to us. Paris, 15 November 1973.”
Jones died in the hospital in Long Island on May 9, 1977. He gave a gift to us—a window into the soul of war. It’s not a pretty place but it’s a place that forges the heart and bonds those hearts to others. In a way, I’m envious of Jones and Sledge and O’Brien and Marlantes who have written about their time in war in ways that allow me to glimpse places I have never, and will never, trod. These combat veterans who are writers have learned something about life and death I don’t know. And they have given me their stories that have made me a kinder human being. It is true that I stand on the outside, looking in through the peephole of what they experienced in war. I can never enter their world. But that doesn’t mean that reading their novels doesn’t make me more aware, more sensitive to them or their experiences or to the veterans I meet or pass by.
The courage it took to write Whistle, the love Jones had for his fellow soldiers, the inner turmoil, the nightmares, the fear to speak about what happened for fear of not being understood, the lack of language to help heal the wounds of war for those who returned from the Pacific are all on the pages of the novel. I wonder what would have happened to the tragic characters of Whistle if they had someone to really confide in. Would they have been able to cope if they had a creative writing class to write and read what they so desperately needed to tell? Can we learn from Jones how to treat the returning combat soldiers of the 21st century? Will we ever be able to make peace with our enemy?
As far as I’m concerned, every American should read this book because it is a truth about the consequences of war. We are so eager to beat the war drum and send innocents to war. Are we honest enough to stay still and reflect what this really means? Whistle is bold writing and there are a lot of explicit and ballsy sexual scenes. But not once was I repulsed or embarrassed by the no-holding-back of what it was like for these men and women during WWII. Instead, I began to understand that these men, these wounded men of war, needed the warm embrace of a woman. They were searching for release from the nightmares, forgiveness for what they did, and desperately trying to be sane, and to love and be loved. And the women these men needed, they needed a man’s embrace to ward off the fear and impending loss of the war.
To write with such courage! To write what one knows so others may learn something or experience the tumbling into the human psyche … to know you are dying and to write anyway … I wish I could thank James Jones personally. This is what great literature is for—to be the vessel for us to peer into the mystery of the human condition, and in spite of all of its horrors and goodness, to want to live another day.