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Into Eternity : THE LIFE OF JAMES JONES, AMERICAN WRITER by Frank MacShane (Houghton Mifflin: $18.95; 355 pp., illustrated)

January 26, 1986|Irving Marder | Marder, a novelist and editor who was on the Paris staff of the International Herald Tribune, was killed in a traffic accident on Dec. 12. The staff of The Book Review extend their condolences to the Marder family. and

"Things will catch up with him and he will probably commit suicide. . . . I hope he kills himself as soon as it does not damage your sales. . . . "

Not, all things considered, anything you'd want to use in a blurb, which is what Scribner's had in mind when--with astonishing naivete--they sent an advance copy of their new hopeful's novel to their old star. That was one of the few printable sections of Hemingway's notorious 1951 letter to Charles Scribner.

"Hemingway understood courage," James Jones remarked mildly in conversation with this reviewer, who knew him slightly in Paris, "but he didn't understand people." It seems, in retrospect, a generous view. But it also seems likely that Jones missed the mark almost as widely as Hemingway had. Even allowing for hysteria and wishful thinking, as a connoisseur of courage, Hemingway could not have been wronger about Jones.

Frank MacShane, the author of widely praised biographies of John O'Hara, Ford Madox Ford, and Raymond Chandler, has taken on a tougher customer in James Jones. Predictably, the cheap-shot marksmen have already entered the gallery: A feline reviewer in the New Republic bagged the novelist's widow with his opening volley.

But nothing, after all, could be easier: James Jones' defects are mostly on the surface. Is there a worse American writer who has written as good a book as "From Here to Eternity"?

MacShane does not confront this paradox until we are more than 200 pages into the biography. "Jones' difficulties with language," he says, "also contributed to his problem. Writing came hard to Jones. He would take an immensely long time with his paragraphs and had no facility with language. Writing letters, he often became embroiled in syntactical and grammatical errors. 'Can you explain my stylistic flaws,' he asked Burroughs Mitchell (his editor at Scribner's) 'which are frequent and annoying?' He had a good ear for dialogue and colloquial English, but he was often verbose and repetitive . . . . Yet if he wished to, he could write elegant and even witty prose . . . ."

Life being short, we are willing to take MacShane's word that Jones could write "elegant and even witty prose" when he wanted to. Elsewhere, he quotes Jones as saying he often wrote awkwardly on purpose--when it was in character. This, of course, leaves intact the problem of telling exactly when Jones is writing badly on purpose . He also relays Jones' complaint that his critics failed often to grasp his "intentions"--though one must assume that MacShane knows, if Jones did not, that what counts is what is on the printed page.

If MacShane falls too often into the biographer's trap of becoming an advocate for his subject rather than a detached commentator, he has nonetheless written, within self-imposed limits, an admirable book about an important American writer: the best American war novelist of his generation. But presumably he had hoped to do more--to present Jones in a wider literary context: to go, that is, beyond Norman Mailer and Irwin Shaw. As the biographer of Ford Madox Ford he might, for example, have had some interesting views on the war novels of this least-military of soldiers as compared with those of the Dogface's bard. Or on James' put-down of Remarque's "All Quiet on the Western Front"--a great war novel, as opposed to a good, or great, American war novel. Or about the apparently iron law that the best war novels are always written by the losers --which is why some of us are waiting impatiently for a look at Heinrich Boll's "The Train Was on Time," published in 1947 but available only now in English translation.

MacShane notes Jones' affinity with Rudyard Kipling. Both were outsiders--nearsighted, undersize men who loved soldiers and soldering but never made the A-team. Kipling, despite lyrical gifts and imaginative powers miles ahead of Jones', got his material mainly at secondhand. Jones, aching to prove himself, transferred from the Army Air Corps to the infantry, followed the big boys and ended up in the bloodbath of Guadalcanal. It was the crucial experience of his life, as it was for many others of his generation. He never got over it but in the process of trying, he wrote about it in a series of books that told his own stories and those of his inarticulate comrades-in-arms. They were not really, contrary to patriotic legend, the best or the brightest of soldiers, but they understood what he was saying.

Writers come in all shapes and sizes. Was there ever a less martial one than, for example, T. S. Eliot? Yet even he could lament, in gaunt cadences, his absence at "the hot gates." The Jones boy was there, and he wrote about it memorably.

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