INTO ETERNITY: The Life of James Jones, American Writer by Frank MacShane

INTO ETERNITY: The Life of James Jones, American Writer

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MacShane's fourth biography (the others treated Ford, Chandler, and O'Hara) is a slack, puffy piece of business--reading half like an official Soviet biography of a peasant farm-hero, half like a too-slick apology for its subject's short fallings. And Jones, as a subject for a straight literary bio (unlike Leggett's cautionary tale Ross and Tom of some years ago), had shortfallings aplenty. His was the story, basically, of an unlikely writer. A Midwestern bruiser of a kid raised by a failed dentist-father and creel, cold mother, enlisting in the Army right after high school, exposed to the work of Thomas Wolfe, wounded at Guadalcanal, discharged, taken up by a mother/lover-figure from his home town who painstakingly (and fairly psychotically) fashions him into a writer through intimidation, Jones' life thereafter was fairly free of incident other than a startling first success, followed by a long decline on the strength of ever less-good novels. When the strongest first adjective a biographer can find for his writer-subject is ""vital""--MacShane uses it within the first few pages here--you sense you're in trouble. MacShane is unable to shake from his own recounting the literary inferiority Jones felt all his life. His education was minimal, his style primitively gross or overmuch, his artistic tastes schlocky--but, in his first and best book, From Here to Eternity, the raw pressures of a complex experience--the needs of soldiers at peace--were effectively rendered. You keep waiting for MacShane to play up this strongest moment of Jones' career with some intelligent analysis; but he mostly gives plot summary and then lets it rest. Nor does he ever stand back and squint critically at the oddest, most fascinating part of the life: Jones' thralldom to his Illinois witch/muse Lowney Handy, an Oedipal tragicomedy if there ever was one. Jones' life was basically the attempt of industry, of hard work, to overcome a small store of native talent--and MacShane, though scrupulously noting every fact and source, seems to let the shape of this life and career totally drift by him. Which is maybe why the book seems so official, so stiffly ""authorized,"" hanging anxiously and uncritically to every thread no matter how weak or dull. It leads MacShane into ridiculousnesses: ""He would also go to Orient Point, on the very end of the north fork of Long Island, and from the rocky, windswept beach look out over the water toward Plum Island. With the wind smacking him in the face, he would think of his own destiny."" Oh. As a vehicle for rehabilitating Jones' gutted literary reputation, this sluggish and unconscious book won't do. What it does for MacShane's own reputation as a serious biographer is also open to question.

Pub Date: Nov. 15th, 1985
Publisher: Houghton Mifflin