Willie Morris tells us that when he first met James Jones 10 years before Jones' death in 1977, "I had read almost everything he had written, and believed From Here to Eternity, The Thin Red Line and Some Came Running three of the finest novels in American literature." So vast an overstatement of Jones' literary achievement smacks of the loyalty Morris was to come to feel for Jones, 15 years his senior. Loyalty is an admirable aspect of what must have been an admirable friendship, but it is hard on the reader of this book. Morris heaps on his high opinion of Jones' work (and the work of other friends: Irwin Shaw, William Styron, for example), at one opint calling The Thin Red Line "The great combat novel of American literature." Take cover, Stephen Crane.
But it is easy to understand Willie Morris' enthusiasm for the man. Success, which came to James Jones at age 30 with the publication of From Here to Eternity , seems to have tamed him. His life was not the spectale it might have been; instead, he lived privately and was dedicated to his family and friends, and to his work. For 15 years he lived in Paris, where his house on the Ile St. Louis was open to the famous and the forlorn. When he returned to the United States in 1973, he began to work furiously on what he felt would be his last novel, and was: Whistle .
Morris' loosely biographical book is at its best when it describes these last years, when the two men became close friends. Particularly affecting is his description of a trip they took with their sons to visit the sites of Civil War battles, including Antietam, where 23,000 men died in one day. They climbed an observation tower overlooking Sunken Road, where much of the battle took place: "'The way men go to die,' Jim said, looking down at the ridge before us. 'It's incredibly sad. It breaks my heart. You wonder why it was necessary, why human beings have to do that to each other....'"
Perhaps these words would seem banal in most mouths. But coming from James Hones, who spent a lifetime writing about soldiers, they resonate. (Doubleday, $8.95)