Book Review: 'Oh, Johnny' by Jim Lehrer
Wednesday, April 15, 2009
By Jim Lehrer
Random House. 221 pp. $25
In his 19th novel in a run going back to the mid-1960s, public television news host Jim Lehrer presents Johnny Wrigley, a baseball-loving Maryland country boy heading off in April 1944 to kill Japanese in World War II. On a troop train rolling cross-country to California, the 18-year-old Johnny savors "a kind of happy excitement" at the thought of what looms ahead. He is "all ready and eager to do whatever it took to win the war."
Johnny's troop train stops in Wichita for a half-hour's rest. It's here that Lehrer, unlike the train, goes off the tracks. Straining credulity, he creates a scene in which the virginal backwoods boy has sex with an equally chaste 17-year-old on hand with other girls to pass out apples and cigarettes to the disembarked Marines. Johnny spots the girl in a crowd. Instantly smitten, and with the train soon to pull out, he takes her to a station backroom for a quickie -- on a cot that just happens, miraculously, to be there. With first-timer Johnny fumbling, the girl -- an Amish-type religious lass named Betsy -- prayerfully mumbles, "Forgive me, Father, for the mortal sin that is in my most evil heart and soul at this very moment." Done, the boy hitches his pants and, Semper Fi, scoots for the departing train. Fiction should be believable. Lehrer's sex scene isn't.
For the rest of the novel, Johnny pines for Betsy. After the war, he does find her -- implausibly so, by spotting her in the left-field bleachers while he's playing semipro baseball in Wichita. Nothing comes of this reunion. Betsy, now married to a conscientious objector, tells Johnny to "ask for forgiveness" for the killing he did as a Marine.
The fluff and weightlessness of the cliched story line -- boy meets girl, boy goes to war, bullet-dodging and lovesick boy yearns for girl -- is matched by Lehrer's Kansas-flat language. Not a memorable metaphor or simile appears, unless you think describing a troopship as a "floating hellhole in rough seas" or a girl as having "a chocolate éclair smile on her face" soars to the literary heights.
McCarthy is director of the Center for Teaching Peace.