To often a book will have only one of these essential qualities.
If a left wing tome it will have the socially conscious thing in spades but it will usually be in the form of a tirade against the modern world that makes us feel we’ve been held captive in a room while someone shouts in our faces for 3 hours.
Or if they are imaginative it will be for no purpose other than just too be imaginative (Wow, aren’t I creative?) No point is really made, so while we are entertained we are also not engaged at a deep level and the book is swiftly forgotten as soon as it’s put down.
And if emotionally engaged it will be in such a way that makes us feel for the unfairness and sadness of life without walking away with an idea of how to make that life better. The result is a feeling of vague depression that hangs around us for the rest of the day.
‘Johnny Got his Gun’ falls into none of these categories. Yes it’s harrowing and yes it will make you angry but it’s also pretty sure about what you should do to avoid such a fate as its main protagonist Joe Bonham, who wakes up in military hospital to slowly realize he has lost all of his limbs.
In a sentence, Don’t believe their shit. Don’t fight for ‘freedom’ or ‘democracy’ because Joe Bonham will tell you it’s not worth it. And all the dead of every war there has ever been if they could come back to life would tell you the same thing.
You might say “So what? I knew that already” To which I would say ‘Well done for your profound self-awareness’ but you should still read ‘Johnny Got his Gun’ anyway because of the way the story is constructed and told.
Joe Bonham drifts in and out of consciousness sharing with us episodes of his life that make him who he is. Or perhaps we should say who he was because with each passing hour he comes to realize just how badly he is hurt. First he realizes he can’t hear and then that he has lost an arm and then his sight and then his legs, until we are not sure of what is left of the man.
He feels that he is reduced too just a mind…but that mind is frequently unsure of whether what it feels is real or a dream. Is that a rat gnawing at his open wound? Or did he imagine it?
Is that the touch of a nurse washing his wounds? Or is it another apparition of his unreliable conscious?
The fact that this is written in the first person puts us in the Bonham’s horrific position and we discover with him the extent of his bodily destruction.
This emotional punch is aided by the ordinary remembered episodes from Joe’s life in Colorado. The girl he loved but who went with his best friend, the fishing trip he took with his father, his time in California working in the bakery. Things we can all readily identify with and understand but that are now as removed from Joe Bonham as his legs.
One of the things that struck me as I read this book was that we’re living in a time of war where young men are coming back wounded everyday and yet I can think of no modern day equivalent of ‘Johnny Got His Gun’.
Why is that? Is it perhaps due to the fact as a society war is kept from us? There are no horrific war images of the type that were shown in newspapers and magazines during the Vietnam War. There is no conscription as in Vietnam or WWI or WW2, so the chances of someone we might know becoming involved is reduced.
War appears like it happens to other people somewhere in the Deep South or out in the low employment badlands. We can ignore it and the consequences it has on ordinary lives.
Dalton Trumbo’s powerful book is a wake up call that let’s us know we do so at our peril.