I guess it’s human nature to keep good things for oneself. It can be a little restaurant off the beaten path or a particularly hard to get rose like Rosa sericea ssp. omeiensis f. pteracantha. When people see its huge blood red translucent prickles I sometimes feel inclined to answer, “I don’t remember. I got it so long ago,” when I’m asked where I bought it. But gardeners, at least most of us, like to share our plants, or at least their provenance. I draw the line when somebody asks me if I ever split my hostas. I never split my hostas but I would like to share this book that came into my life for only fifty cents.
It was three years ago that I rummaged inside a book bin near the verboten cigarette counter of my Oakridge Safeway (in Vancouver, BC). I found a hard cover book that looked interesting and I paid $0.50 for it. I took it home and put it on a pile and then forgot it. About a month ago I received an e-mail from AbeBooks. Because I buy books from them I get infrequent but interesting “spam” ads. This one was about ten forgotten novels that had won the Pulitzer Prize. The only one in the list that I had ever read was Allen Drury’s Advise and Consent. All ten novels had the jacket covers shown. One looked very familiar. I ran up to my book pile and found Guard of Honor by James Gould Cozzens. My copy had been part of the King Edward Branch of the Vancouver Public Library.
The AbeBooks blurb on Cozzens was this one:
1. Guard of Honor
James Gould Cozzens
First published 1948
Highest price on AbeBooks — $850
Cozzens became immensely popular in the 1950s and was nominated for a second Pulitzer for By Love Possessed. However his popularity waned in 1957 when he was branded as an elitist after being interviewed by Time Magazine. Statements like “I can’t read 10 pages of Steinbeck without throwing up,” didn’t win him any friends. Guard of Honor takes place over three days in 1943 at a Florida Airbase featuring a new hapless commander.
This intrigued me to try the book. It was an unexpected surprise. I savoured this remarkable book for almost a week. I didn’t want to finish it. While the book is about what happens in a Florida US Army Air Force base (the US Air Force was not yet an independent entity) one Thursday, Friday and Saturday, very little happens. It is 1943 but the war seems to be a faraway theatre. I met its commander, a flashy youngish hot shot pilot called General Beal and many more protagonists from colonels, female lieutenants and sergeants to privates. A black officer, from a soon to be all black bombing squadron and plays the literary McMuffin when a white officer punches him in the nose. The most interesting character is Captain Nathaniel Hicks who had been a magazine editor before he was drafted but was made an officer because of his experience. In the novel he works for what would now be called public affairs. Captain Hicks is an expert spin doctor. His character is based on the author himself.
During World War II, Cozzens had served in the U.S> Army Air Forces updating manuals, then in the USAAF Office of Information Services, a liaison and “information clearinghouse” between the military and the civilian press. One of the missions of his job was in controlling news, and it became Cozzens’ job to defuse situations potentially embarrassing to the Chief of the Army Air Forces, Gen. Henry H. Arnold. In the course of his job he became one of the best informed officers of any rank and service in the United States. He was made major at the end of the war. These experiences are key to the feeling of authenticity when I read Guard of Honour.
The novel is not all that easy to read. There are many characters to remember and the writing in some parts is dense. But it is all beautifully written. Consider this passage which follows General Beal’s humorous reminiscence on reasons why his wife was finally “compelled” to marry him.
In this joking relation were elements of complacence, and other elements of sentimental or self-interested reminiscence, the mind’s flat lie about the past; but also, ingeniously full-hearted, wistfully it gathered a true tenderness around the more or less distorted fact. Unmixed with anything but sadness, fond feelings could live there, secure from the minute by minute test of verifiable truth and observable fact, unspoiled by the moving instant’s irritabilities of sense, the separate discomforts, the incompatible wishes that greatly moderated, in any present, men’s appreciation of one another, let alone of their women.
And then this is the novel’s juiciest sex passage:
“Come in here, “Nathaniel Hicks said. She was now, he realized, shaking no more that he was. She made a slight resistance. She said: “Yes. I will. I’m going to. But could you put that light out first?”
Originally published at blog.alexwaterhousehayward.com.