Jim and Gloria Jones used to have an open house on Saturday nights when they lived on the Ile St. Louis in Paris, playing poker til the early hours. Those long nights around their huge dining table were a tradition, and there were regulars who never missed them, but the point was fun and almost anyone who could play poker well enough was welcome. Special invitations might be given in the afternoon if someone the novelist hadn't seen in a while came to mind. Then he'd lurch to the phone and rasp, "Where the hell have you been? You coming tonight?"
James Jones, author of the National Book Award-winning "From Here to Eternity," died on Monday night. His epithet-laden accounting of World War II based on his own experience initiated a new style in writing dialogue, and Jones, with Norman Mailer ("The Naked and the Dead,") was prohesied to be a strong new voice in American literature. "Eternity" was the first of a trilogy, with "The Thin Red Line" the second volume, and the yet-to-be-published "Whistle," his last endeavor.
James Jones' tough stance was, endearingly, a stance. As a couple, he an Gloria, married in 1957, emanated a feeling of tenderness grown of tumultous efforts, despite volatility, despeite partings.
I wasn't part of their poker crowd, but in 1973 my son Billy and their son Jamie were. They had learned to play pretty good poker pretty last, and by age 11 they were regulars.
Jim usually wore an open shirt, a neckerchief; and affected a certain bursqueness; Gloria reigned graciously, elegantly - a tall blonde, funny and warm and open, her large front teeth a charming imperfection, her voice somewhat husky with small catches in it. She had been a dancer once. They had two children, Kaylie, 12, and Jamie, 11.
The Joneses had invited my son to go skiling with them at Closters. Jones was to go with them for the tran ride (the kids were in a highpitch of excitment about that) and stay for the birthday of his old friend and fellow novelist Irwin Shaw. Then Jones would go to Vietnam to do a piece for the New York Times Gloria and the kids would stay on in Switzerland to ski through the Mardi Gras holiday.
Billy and I had driven through the Paris rush-hour to be at the Joneses by 7, but Gloria was still downstairs packing, and I stayed for a drink. I sat at the small side table that had a chess aboard on it and a game going all the time, Jones, sitting back on his heels, leaned against the bookcase and talked about the book he'd just finished . . . a mystery, "A Touch of Danger," that had been set in Greece how much, how fast, how hard he'd worked on it. Up at six, thousands of words a day spilling through it.
His frequwen pauses lengthened as he began talking about Vietnam, then about the last third of his trilogy that had begun with"From Here to Eternity."
That was the work he really wanted to get to, he said, the real stuff, what mattered. He wanted to see those people through, those men from "Eternity." They would be his age, but they'd be different than he'd known them and he wanted to see what they would be like, who they'd be.
He really didn't know, then. Their comradery built by World War II, based on shared horrors, certain sergeants and some women in a war they generally didn't question - he wanted to see what happened to that. And to see how they lived in the '70s. I suppose that in the pauses were all the things that would have changed his men - peaceniks, beatniks, hippies, Viet Cong, Fonda, Kennedy, Johnson.
That book seemed to be on his mind most of all. While he'd written several books since "Eternity," some critics had termed them easy, popular, even cheap. And few scholars granted "Eternity" much more than the status of a superb period piece.
As he explained his concerns about the new book and Vietnam Jones leaned across the narrowest part of the path from the kids' rooms to the downstairs, where Gloria was still packing. Kids were racing through looking for their after-ski boots, fighting over long underwear. Gloria had brought me a drink and fixed herself one.
She had to do her own packing, she said, but kept coming upstairs to remind the children of this and that. Sometimes she just fluttered up and went back down, increasingly distraught. Finally, she was quietly crying. I was watching some exchanging that wasn't quite being said.
Jones continued - absorbing the texture of preparation, and talking and pausing, and I wondered if I was imagining these sadder tones shimmering underneath the kids' excitement. With my own marriage coolly shredding, I was drawn to two-part warmth, looked for it, made it up. But this was real. It was that amazing, hard-earned closeness very few couples achieve.
She was crying and she didn't slow down as she crossed the room saying, "Remembering the last time you went away and were in the hospital and all the phone bills . . ." The words trailed off unpuncuated as she went toward the kid's rooms.
Then before going back downstairs, she paused by the table where I was sitting. Jim was still resting on his heels, staring at the floor. She moved a chess piece and went down the steps. He noticed but didn't move. My son raced up to tell me that he'd left his passport at home. As I left to go and get it. Jones got up to see the move she'd made.