Sunday, October 13, 2013

James Jones - The Thin Red Line

There are plenty of novels out there about the experience of the infantry soldier in World War Two. The Thin Red Line however feels very different. James Jones' novel looks at the fighting  on the Pacific island of Guadalcanal as US soldiers fought to destroy entrenched Japanese positions. Jones treats the battles, which are mostly small engagements between handfuls of men, as a highly individual experience. Different characters fight, at the same time as digging through their fears, their nerves, their hatred of their comrades, their feelings of their superiors and their drunkenness.

As a result of this approach there is no real story except the development of the battle. As we follow various individuals we see how the relationships between soldiers grow, develop or collapse. The officers in particular, some talented, many more useless, are the major factors determining how the ordinary soldier feels. As the battle progresses men are sacrificed for ambition, as well as incompetence. The fear of sudden death is matched with hope for a wound that will send the trooper back home. Sometimes the wound is too much; one of the hardest scenes in the book is the injured trooper who repeatedly screams "how will I be able to work?" when his comrades try to reassure him that his wound means he can escape from the war.

This is a classic war novel, but its excellence lies in part in the maturity with which it deals with subjects like sex (in particular a fairly frank attitude to gay sex, that must have been unusual in the early 1960s) and the reality of war. It deserves to be read alongside such classics as The Naked and the Dead.

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