Restoring the reputation of a `literary hardhat'

Into Eternity: The Life of James Jones, American Writer, by Frank MacShane. Boston: Houghton Mifflin. 355 pp. $18.95. ``He didn't talk theories, ideas, social stuff the way our crowd liked to do. He wasn't a do-gooder, a bleeding heart, a seeker after social justice. He was a kind of literary hardhat who talked facts, people, things, the everyday human conflict. He didn't use phrases like `the human condition.' It was refreshing.''

The speaker is Budd Schulberg (``What Makes Sammy Run?''), and his subject is James Jones, the man who wrote ``From Here to Eternity,'' ``The Thin Red Line,'' ``Whistle,'' and eight other books; the man who in his time was considered by such (difficult and competitive) friends as William Styron, Norman Mailer, and Irwin Shaw as perhaps the best of the postwar novelists.

Now, of course, few people read Jones; his reputation is, to put it charitably, in eclipse. But in 1951, the year ``From Here to Eternity'' exploded onto the literary scene, things were entirely different.

Jones finished ``From Here to Eternity'' in a trailer park in Arizona, and Scribner's promoted the novel with ferocity. It was published on Feb. 26, 1951, quickly moved to the top of the best-seller list, eventually selling over half a million hard-cover copies and over 5 million in paper. It won the American Book Award, then the Pulitzer. Then came the film; it won Oscars. Jones was famous.

Jones grew up unhappily, writes Frank MacShane in ``Into Eternity,'' in Robinson, Ill., a small town 40 miles southwest of Terre Haute, Ind. He enlisted in the Army in 1939 at the age of 18, and stayed in until 1944. He spent most of his time on Hawaii, some in the Pacific Theater; he was injured by mortar fire at Guadalcanal.

After the war, he became the prot'eg'e/part-time lover of Lowney Handy, who, says Mr. MacShane, was ``primarily interested in developing his talent.'' Theirs was an extremely complicated and not altogether healthy re- lationship, but it did provide Jones with the support and time he needed to write.

Others recognized his talent, too. The legendary book editor Maxwell Perkins corresponded with Jones, and the young writer ``would sometimes take out Perkins's letters and read them over,'' an act, wrote Jones, after which ``I experienced such a feeling of joy as is hard to describe without exaggeration.''

In 1957, he met and soon married Gloria Mosolino. Their relationship was passionate, if frequently incendiary, and always, for better or worse, exciting -- as MacShane makes clear in ``Into Eternity.'' They moved to Paris in 1958 and enjoyed their celebrity -- entertaining the likes of Lauren Bacall, John Kenneth Galbraith, Sargent Shriver, Kurt Vonnegut, Mary McCarthy, Franoise Sagan, and Jean Seberg. They returned to the United States in 1974, three years before Jones died.

``Into Eternity,'' like most biographies, is dedicated in part to the restoration of Jones's reputation, and MacShane, like most biographers, is a bit overprotective of his subject. Passages like ``Once again, most of the fury seems to have been generated by the reviewers' failure to understand what Jones's intentions were'' appear more than once. There are also times when events could be more clearly dated.

Still, this is a fine biography, in a class with MacShane's studies of Raymond Chandler and John O'Hara. MacShane writes lively prose, is a thorough researcher, avoids lengthy summaries of Jones's novels, and his effort may -- and probably should -- boost Jones's literary stock.

Yet even those who consider Jones a minor novelist -- and there are many who do -- will find this biography pleasurable, for his life was as dramatic and absorbing, perhaps more so, than his work.

James Kaufmann reviews books regularly for the Monitor.

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