Retro Review: Johnny Got His Gun by Dalton Trumbo (Citadel Press, 1970)
How does a reviewer do justice to a book called “the great American novel”? I first read Johnny Got His Gun during the Viet Nam war, when young people, nationwide, were protesting fighting in a war that was a senseless waste of life; a war in which the United States had no business participating. Johnny Got His Gun was a punch in the gut of those of us who had lost friends and family in the jungles of Viet Nam and we couldn't fathom why such a vehemently anti-war novel, first published in 1939, hadn't finished war completely.
The details of Johnny Got His Gun are unforgettable once they have been digested by the reader. Twenty year old Joe Bonham, a native son of Colorado, is jarred awake by the incessant ringing of a telephone. He is perplexed as to why someone doesn't come and answer the unnerving ring. Joe thinks, “Things were getting floaty and sickly. Things were so quiet. Things were so goddam still. A hangover headache thumps and clatters and raises hell inside your skull. But this wasn't any hangover. He was a sick man. He was a sick man, and he was remembering things. Like coming out of ether.” (p.16)
As Joe becomes more aware, he realizes that the ringing in his head is due to a devastating injury to his head. “Oh god then he was deaf. Where did they get that stuff about bombproof dugouts when a man in one of them could be hit so hard that the whole complicated business of his ears could be blown away leaving him deaf so deaf he couldn't hear his own heart beat? He had been hit and he had been hit bad and now he was deaf.” (p.18)
But his hearing is not all that Joe Bonham has lost in the Great War. By exploring his body using his nerves, Joe comes to the shocking realization that he has lost his arms and legs, and a mask has been placed over the bloody pulp that was once his eyes, nose, mouth, and jaw. Essentially Joe Bonham is the stump of a body with a fully functioning brain. He is alive, but he is dead. The worst part of this nightmare is that he is totally cut off from the outside world, the only resident of the loneliest universe in the world.
The book, told incredibly through interior monologue, which is exceptionally difficult for an author to sustain for a few pages, let alone a 300 page novel, details Joe's journey to try to reconnect with the world outside him. As readers we traverse the miserable path that Joe, just an average young man, who had worked in an industrial bakery before the war, stocking freshly baked goods onto delivery trucks, we come to realize that even the most ordinary human being can accomplish extraordinary things when put to the ultimate challenge.
Aside from Joe's struggle to communicate with the doctors and nurses who tend to his bodily needs, Joe must occupy his time laying in a foreign bed for hours and hours of consciousness. During these periods Joe thinks about the details of his life; his last fishing trip with his father, the jars of canned fruits and pickled eggs that his mother would store for the winter, his best friend Bill Harper, who betrayed him, and his lovely girlfriend, Kareen.
Joe recalls his beautiful final night with Kareen, and then his departure at the train station the next morning, where his mother and sisters come to see him off as well. Joe recalls the scene at the depot in detail:
“All aboard. All aboard.”
Over there over there over there over there over there
“Goodbye son. Write us. We'll make out.”
“Goodbye mother goodbye Catherine goodbye Elizabeth don't cry.”
The yanks are coming the yanks are coming
“Let us pray. Our Father which art in Heaven”
I can't pray. Kareen can't pray. Kareen Kareen this is no time to pray.
Kareen Kareen I don't want to go (p.53)
And finally, Joe takes time to question the purpose of war. He comes to conclusion that all wars are the same, and the outcome of wars is never good. The aftermath of brutality is littered with millions of corpses, much like Joe, armless, legless, faceless, countryless. He was supposed to be fighting in a war that “made the world safe for democracy.” He ponders, “There was this freedom the little guys were always getting killed for. Was it freedom from another country? Freedom from work or disease or death? Freedom from your mother-in-law?” (p.146) Just what do those concepts mean when you are a casualty of the great war, laying in a bed for the rest of your unnatural life?
This disturbing and heart-breaking novel, as well as its author, Dalton Trumbo, had as extraordinary a history as it deserves in its legacy and reputation as the most powerful anti-war novel ever written. Originally published in 1939, Trumbo and his publisher decided not to reprint the novel following the outbreak of World War II. However, during the second world war, soldiers did correspond with Trumbo to tell him that they had gotten copies of it through libraries and old versions of it, read it, and were moved deeply by it. In the introduction to the book, Trumbo tells us, “It was out of print again during the Korean War, at which time I purchased the plates rather than have them sold to the Government for conversion into munitions. And there the story ends, or begins.” (p.6)
Trumbo, later blacklisted in Hollywood for being part of the “Hollywood Ten” during the Joe McCarthy era, refused to testify before the House on Un-American Activities Committee in 1947, during the committee's investigation into the American communist movement. As a result, Trumbo's illustrious career as a screen writer, was curtailed for many years, forcing him to produce work such as the Academy Award winning film, Roman Holiday, under a pseudonym. It wasn't until 1960 that Trumbo was able to re-emerge from the shadows, finally getting screen credit for penning such movies as Exodus and Spartacus.
In 2015 Bryan Cranston received an Academy Awards nomination for his portrayal of the eccentric writer in the film called Trumbo. Although Trumbo's commercial successes in Hollywood as a screenplay writer were enormous, to me his greatest story and triumph has always been Johnny Got His Gun. If you have never read this novel, this is one not to miss, truly, indeed, a great American novel.