Dalton Trumbo is not a name you forget easily. I knew of him as a Hollywood screenwriter blacklisted in 1947 after he refused to give information to Joseph McCarthy’s House Un-American Activities Committee. He later wrote many screenplays under pseudonym, and contributed to Spartacus; it was after Kirk Douglas publicised Trumbo’s involvement that his blacklisting was finally lifted. In fact, if McCarthy was looking for Reds under the bed, he had come to the right person: Trumbo was a member of the Communist Party in the mid-1940s, and a supporter long before. Although screenwriting was his major creative outlet, he also wrote a handful of novels, which he was unafraid to use as platforms for his political views.
Johnny Got His Gun (1939) is not explicitly communist but leaves little doubt as to where Trumbo’s sympathies lie: with the little man, and against the machinery of government, particularly when one calls upon the other to fight wars on its behalf. The risk for a novel with a political message is that it will turn out to be a lot of political message and not much novel, but Trumbo has a few tricks to show us.
First, the narrative comprises a fractured internal monologue which leaves the reader to flail around in search of fixed points. On page one the telephone rings. On page two:
“Hello son. Come on home now.”
“All right mother I’ll be right there.”
He went into the lean-to office with the wide glass front where Jody Simmons the night foreman kept a close watch on his crew.
“Jody I got to go home. My father just died.”
“Died? Gosh kid that’s too bad. Sure kid you run along. Rudy. Hey Rudy. Grab a truck and drive Joe home. His old – his father just died. Sure kid go on home. I’ll have one of the boys punch you out. That’s tough kid. Go home.”
Now that’s economy. The telling is not always so uncompromising, and when Trumbo has a point to make he’s as clear as can be. We learn that the things described are not happening to Joe but are, rather, his memories: “He was a sick man. He was a sick man and he was remembering things.” Sick is one way of putting it. Pain is “all over his body like electricity,” and it is only gradually that we find out just how sick he is. (“They had picked him up quickly and hauled him back to a base hospital and all of them had rolled up their sleeves and rubbed their hands together and said well boys here’s a very interesting problem let’s see what we can do.”) The true nature of Joe’s condition is a risky conceit, and one which (largely because it brings to mind some unedifying schoolboy jokes) threatens to tip over into crazy caricature: which Trumbo defuses with black humour of his own.
It does, however, give Trumbo another creative challenge: how to occupy a 250 page novel when the central character – really the only character – cannot communicate with the rest of the world. One way of dealing with this is with stream of consciousness. Here Trumbo achieves some truly powerful effects, particularly at the end of each part of the book, when Joe’s repetitive raving against war becomes poetic, hypnotic and almost symphonic.
By war the book means the First World War, though in the end it was published two days after the Second broke out. Its pacifist message was initially a rallying point for the left, but it fell from favour when America was under attack at Pearl Harbour, and Trumbo in a 1959 afterword says that he was not unhappy when the book fell out of print. “There are times when it may be needful for certain private rights to give way to the requirements of a larger public good. I know that’s a dangerous thought, and I shouldn’t wish to carry it too far, but World War II was not a romantic war.” The book was celebrated again during the Vietnam war, and this new edition may indicate that there’s another war or two now which might require some scrutiny and consideration.
Johnny Got His Gun is sometimes sentimental and obvious. The irony is pretty heavy-handed in passages such as this, when Joe recalls a school trip to see one of the first aviators:
The airplane said Mr Hargreaves would cut down the distance between nations and peoples. The airplane would be a great instrument in making people understand one another in making people love one another. The airplane said Mr Hargreaves was ushering in a new era of peace and prosperity and mutual understanding.
Still, there is significant satisfaction to be had in the narrative, which carries out some form of escapology on its self-restricting conceit and manages to become urgent and exciting in the second half. In addition, Trumbo’s message, which may be a simple or even facile one, is delivered with such passion in its varying forms that the book ends up a success artistically as well as politically.
He lay and thought oh Joe Joe this is no place for you. This was no war for you. This thing wasn’t any of your business. What do you care about making the world safe for democracy? All you wanted to do Joe was to live. … Yet here you are and it was none of your affair. Here you are Joe and you’re hurt worse than you think. You’re hurt bad. Maybe it would be a lot better if you were dead and buried on the hill across the river from Shale City. Maybe there are more things wrong with you than you suspect Joe. Oh why the hell did you ever get into this mess anyhow? Because it wasn’t your fight Joe. You never really knew what the fight was all about.