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Johnny Got His Gun (1939)

by Dalton Trumbo

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3,318643,175 (4.17)139
"Published by arrangement with Lyle Smart, Inc."--T.p. verso.
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Showing 1-5 of 59 (next | show all)
Johnny Got His Gun is an uneven novel perennially redeemed by its great central concept. Taking his title from the patriotic war lyric "Johnny get your gun", meant to encourage young American men to join the army and fight in World War One, author Dalton Trumbo tells the story of a young man who did get his gun and go. But there's a "difference between a war that's in newspaper headlines and liberty loan drives and a war that is fought out lonesomely in the mud somewhere a war between a man and a high explosive shell" (pg. 224). Trumbo's main character Joe Bonham has lost all of his limbs, his jaw, his hearing and his eyes due to a shell burst, but has survived. This is the endpoint of war, once the drums and bugles have died away.

As you can imagine, there's no room for subtlety in Trumbo's story, but for the most part it works. It works particularly well as an anti-war tract; so potent is the appalling image of Joe, alive but unable to interact or communicate, that at its best moments Johnny Got His Gun makes you swear off not only support for any form of war, but off any sort of harm to others. It is a tragic, wretched, depressing story of the young man trapped in this body, all but dead, and his attempts to establish communication, like a man buried underground screaming that he's alive (pg. 212). The message is diluted somewhat by Trumbo's willingness to use it as a political football (a lifelong Communist, Trumbo railed against the book's ban when pacifism was all the rage among the left-wing, but suppressed it himself when the Soviet Union was invaded in 1941, and right-wing isolationists found common cause with it), but even these knocks can't diminish it to any considerable degree.

Where Johnny Got His Gun struggles is as a novel. The writing is often good – in that naked lucidity that righteous rage often generates – but there's a bit too much chaff in this literary wheat-field, and it's fatiguing to follow some of Trumbo's digressions. The monologue of Joe Bonham as he lies mute, blind and crippled in his hospital bed is fine – you accept this isn't going to be a nippy, plot-driven story right from the start – but Joe's lengthy reminiscences of his happy past are, frankly, dull. There are bland, drawn-out memories of working in a bakery, living on a farm, courting girls, and even a long retelling of the Mary and Joseph story from the Bible. It's all tolerable, I guess, but it's filler.

The sometimes-artless content is particularly frustrating as some promising literary avenues aren't followed. For example, the start of chapter 3 talks about Joe's exhaustion within his prison body, but doesn't tie the feeling ("A man can't fight always" (pg. 25)) to the obvious wider theme of pacifism. There are good moments, such as when Joe imagines himself talking to dead soldiers in a sort of purgatory, only for them to agree that Joe has it worse, which makes it frustrating when some of the other dots weren't joined up. The supporting characters don't have much presence, and the tender relationship with the nurse who finally establishes communication with Joe has less depth than it has in the film adaptation (also by Trumbo). But, as I said at the start of this review, Johnny Got His Gun, in its flaws, is always redeemed by that horrifying, uncomfortable central concept. It's not always a strong story, but it is always a worthy one. ( )
1 vote MikeFutcher | Sep 5, 2021 |
This is _the_ anti-war novel. A stream of consciousness tale that is ultimately beyond horrifying, leaving you numb and almost unable to process exactly what it was you just read. You will think about Johnny long after the last words are read and wonder just why is it anyone ever agrees to go to war. ( )
  illmunkeys | Apr 22, 2021 |
Reading this book reminds me of stories about sensory deprivation tanks.
A shallow reader may think this book is mainly about war, and while that is true; I noticed a lot of emphasis on the humanity of Johnny.
Humanity expressed in memories, thoughts, sense and strong passionate appreciation of life. ( )
  064 | Dec 25, 2020 |
This is an amazing book. Every warmonger should be tied down to a chair and made to listen to it. Maybe then, peace would break out. ( )
  064 | Dec 25, 2020 |
I read this book in HS, as many did. Hard to read, but not because it lacks punctuation. I still remember the horror of being introduced to "locked in" syndrome via Dalton Trumbo. His ingenious ability to crystallize the obscenity of war, circa the medical and sociological parameters of WWI, will stay with me forever. ( )
  Mona07452 | Oct 23, 2020 |
Showing 1-5 of 59 (next | show all)
"There can be no question of the effectiveness of this book." "Mr. Trumbo sets this story down almost without pause or punctuation and without a fury amounting eloquence."
added by jimcripps | editNew York Times
 
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"Published by arrangement with Lyle Smart, Inc."--T.p. verso.

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Penguin Australia

An edition of this book was published by Penguin Australia.

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Tantor Media

An edition of this book was published by Tantor Media.

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