Johnny Got His Gun 4/5 Stars
This book has been on my To Read list since I was in high school. A combination of it being a book my dad would talk about (he never talked about books), being in the Metallica video, and various other sources, it’s always been around but it wasn’t until I started this year out implementing SSR (self-selected reading) in my English classes and had a used copy in a book bin that I finally decided to give it a go.
The premise is that a young WWI soldier comes to in a world of dream and memory and sensation and slowly realizes that he’s been wounded. At first he thinks it’s just being deaf and maybe something going with his eyes. But he comes to understand that it’s actually all four of his limbs, most of his face, and his sight and hearing. He also realizes that he no longer has a sense of time passing or exactly which is dreams and which is consciousness. Supposing that this begins a grieving process in him, he goes through anger and depression, falls deep into his own past and memory, and begins to question the very foundation of America, war, and his past.
But when he finally is able to gain a foothold on the outside world, he begins to slowly clamber back into a meaningful existence.
The intro to this book is really interesting because Dalton Trumbo came to loathe how his book was exploited as an anti-WWII sentiment by anti-Semitic America Firsters but then accepted its ant-Vietnam War adoption. He basically suggests that WAR is a less important question than wars, ie understanding individual causes.
An idea that is definitely explored in a similar book by the Mississippi writer Larry Brown in his novel “Dirty Work.”
A Death in Family – 5/5 James Agee
I have less of a long history with this book, but it’s been on my to read list for a little while yet. This book is absolutely excruciating. So be warned. It’s beautiful and it’s wonderfully written, but there’s only the barest hint of humor in it and a lot of pain. And if you’re (which you’re not) it hits very much home in a few ways.
Jay Follet wakes one night to a phone call from his drunk brother babbling on about how their father is close to his death. He gets up, he gets himself some food, packs a bag, and drives off.
And dies soon after in a carwreck.
What had been a narrative focused on the death of an old father becomes a story about the death of a young father.
Here’s the thing about me: I am not a young father, but my name starts with J, I am one month shy of my 36th birthday and J is one month past his. He has his life together and it shows, and I have finally gotten myself together after years of not so much.
The rest of the novel deals with the granular level ruminations, the after effects, the complicated and contradictory feelings, and the innocence and tenderness of children in the face of death.
There’s a clear sense perhaps adults face death better; children actually accept it.
It’s a near perfect novel, but it’s a highly lyrical and literary novel. It dwells on pain, on conversation, and barely escapes wallowing, but everything fits perfectly. And the way in which a violent freak death impacts a family is so perfectly laid out.