Today I am reading the last weary, shimmering chapters of From Here to Eternity, a novel by James Jones about soldiers stationed in Hawaii on the eve of World War II. It’s my second reading of the book: the first time was with a battered copy from my university library two years ago. I came across my own careworn red copy of the book the very first time I went to look for it in a used bookstore, about ten months ago, but I saved the book with delicious anticipation until this past January, reasoning that I would appreciate its sunny Hawaiian setting the most if I read it in the dead of winter.
From Here to Eternity is always going to be vivid and clear in my memory, and not just because of the book in its own right. Everything about my life vis-à-vis this book has seemed fateful, from the mysterious ease of finding a copy (almost nobody that I know has heard of the book) to the events that have occurred around my readings of it. What I will never forget about my first reading is the day in the library when the book was open in front of me but my thoughts were elsewhere, on a friend with whom I was going through a difficult period. Minutes later, in a university of nearly 30,000, that same friend ran into me. The resulting tension brought about one of the only times I have ever cried in public. I left the book spread open on the table and we went outside for a talk which I think was a turning point in that relationship.
This time, I am not in the sun-drenched rooms of UCSD’s library but breathing the pollen-choked air of Japan in late March. As two-and-a-half months of rereading draw to a close, I feel a clean, tentative optimism. The knots that Jones ties in these last pages suggest to me endings that hold the promise of new beginnings. Warden and Karen’s tender farewell seems to blend smoothly into the hope of dawning spring; protagonist Prewitt faces death with a heroism and Zen-like acceptance that seem naïve and pointless but also good and right.
How can I convey the way that the chapters of this book interweave themselves with my life? This past winter, besides steadily making my way through 789 pages of World War II epic, I came to understand the huge significance of my home – my country, my culture, my family and friends. The teeming America of From Here to Eternity is not entirely the same as my America, but it instills in the characters the same sentimental patriotism that my tenure abroad has begun to instill in me.
There are a lot of things to dislike about this book. It’s long. Many of the characters are suspiciously similar to one another. It’s flippant in its sensationalist reproduction of the misogyny and racism that apparently plagued the US Army in 1941. Yet the arc of the novel, its sweeping scope, its vivid universe of so many lives, loves, betrayals, leave me confident in calling it my favorite book. Like the flawed characters, caught up in pride, lust, anger and general wrongheadedness, the book is real and beautiful in its imperfection.