Beth's Book Review

Retro Review: Johnny Got His Gun by Dalton Trumbo

d959bfb98d2c0ea4de50_Johnny_got_his_gun.jpg
d959bfb98d2c0ea4de50_Johnny_got_his_gun.jpg

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)

Sign Up for E-News

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.

Beth Moroney, former English teacher and administrator in the Edison Public School District, specialized in teaching Creative Writing and Journalism. Recently Moroney published Significant Anniversaries of Holocaust/Genocide Education and Human/Civil Rights, available through the New Jersey Commission on the Holocaust. A passionate reader, Moroney is known for recommending literature to students, teachers, parents, and the general public for over forty years. Moroney can be contacted at trackdak19@hotmail.com.

The opinions expressed herein are the writer's alone, and do not reflect the opinions of TAPinto.net or anyone who works for TAPinto.net. TAPinto.net is not responsible for the accuracy of any of the information supplied by the writer.

TAP Into Another Town's News:

You May Also Be Interested In

Sign Up for E-News

East Brunswick

Pinkin Resolution to Raise Awareness of Gun Violence passes Assembly

May 24, 2018

TRENTON, NJ - Assembly Democrats Yvonne Lopez, Angela McKnight and Nancy Pinkin resolution to raise awareness of gun violence was voted out of the Assembly 67-0 on Thursday.
            The measure (AJR-100) designates June 2 of each year as “Gun Violence Awareness Day” in New Jersey in order to promote ...

Learn How to “Ace The Interview” at the East Brunswick Public Library

EAST BRUNSWICK, NJ—Looking for a new job? East Brunswick Public Library (2 Jean Walling Civic Center) is here to help. The library offers a special program called “Acing the Interview” on Saturday, June 16 at 10:30 am, which is designed to help jobseekers.

“Acing the Interview” focuses on what many feel is the most stressful part of the job search process: ...

East Brunswick Public Library Launches “EB Grow” Seed Library

EAST BRUNSWICK, NJ—Every spring, library customers visit East Brunswick Public Library (2 Jean Walling Civic Center) to find resources on how to garden. Thanks to a joint partnership between East Brunswick Public Library and the Friends of the East Brunswick Environmental Commission, gardeners will be able to get some “seed money” to start their first crops for the year.

The ...

The Queen of the Big Time by Adriana Trigiani (Ballentine Books, 2005)

            The Queen of the Big Time by Adriana Trigiani, a New York Times best selling author, was recommended to me by a young woman who actually came from the town of Roseto, Pennsylvania, the place where the novel is set. “The author did such a wonderful job of describing how the town actually is,” said the young lady.

The Great Alone by Kristin Hannah (St. Martin's Press, 2018)

            What is the “final frontier” on the Earth's surface? Many people would say Alaska, the 49th state, which was added to the United States fifty years ago. Once one has traveled to that remote land, it is impossible to forget the magnificence of the terrain and beasts. Floating by ship in Glacier Bay, surrounded by ...

'Turning Off the Morning News' brings comic twist

‘Turning Off the Morning News’ tackles today’s issues with a comic twist

By Liz Keill

PRINCETON, N J – Despite the late night comics, no one quite captures the insanity of the political/social status world like Christopher Durang.

His latest play, “Turning off the Morning News” hit the ground running.  John Pankow as Jimmy addresses the audience, ...

'To Kill a Mockingbird' Sustains Timeless Appeal

SUMMIT, NJ – The Summit Playhouse provides a stellar production of a much loved classic, “To Kill a Mockingbird.”

The Harper Lee novel, later a Gregory Peck film and now a stage production, retains all the warmth, intensity and integrity that made it such an appealing hit in the 1960s. And there will be a new production on Broadway in December with a script by Aaron Sorkin ...