I am yet under the spell Some Came Running put on me fifty-two years ago. If James Jones wasn't himself a sorcerer, he surely must have tapped into some magic reservoir of imagination when he created the most poignant romantic tragedy I've ever read.
I've kept the paperback copy from 1963 but haven't opened it since. Was afraid Jones's story might no longer affect the profound emotions it did back then in me—a small-town Midwesterner on the verge of running away to the Army to flee his failures. I've learned from sad experience along the way trying to recapture a past enchantment often dispels the memory's potency. Some Came Running's was one I had rather not risked losing.
What finally prompted me to take that risk was hearing “Gwen's Theme” from the novel's movie version. Now, the movie left so little impression on me I have barely a recollection of seeing it. I did not recognize the music. Knowing what it represented, though, I could feel through its peculiar, rending harmonies, its swells, diminishes, and earnest tempos, the depth of longing and anguish and sorrow shared by Gwen and her lover as they returned to me from the book. It drew me in like a siren song. With my old paperback copy still in boxes with hundreds of other books from my recent move, I went online to see if maybe there was an ebook version. This is when I learned not only that Some Came Running had been out of print for over half a century, but that a newly abridged edition appeared just last year.
Curious to see the impressions of others who'd returned to Some Came Running via this abridgment, I read a few of the “customer reviews” on Amazon.com. It was here I discovered that the version I had read was drastically cut from the original edition—down more than half the 1,266 pages of the original. The cut version had been published in conjunction with the movie. In her foreword to the new abridgment, the editing of which she supervised and which restored all but about 250 pages of the original, Jones's daughter, novelist Kaylie Jones, gives us a peek behind the curtain at her father's mindset when the first edition came out:
“Rereading it, I realized how important it is, and that it could have used a very good line editor.” she wrote. “I am speaking more from instinct and with hindsight than from certainty here, but I believe my father resisted edits because, expecting a harsh response from what he considered the snooty 'ivory tower' literary establishment, he decided to thumb his nose at it in every way possible.”
This would explain the missing apostrophes in contractions, an oddity I don't remember from my previous reading. I take an irreverent joy from this, fully appreciating the author's passion. Kaylie Jones's revelation also explains in part—for me, anyway—her father's genius for getting under social pretension and into the marrow of his readers' souls, enabling me to thumb my nose at such contemporaries of Jones as Norman Mailer and William Styron. Some months before my first reading of Some Came Running I had come across a piece of nasty gossip Mailer published about Styron reading aloud at a dinner party some of Jones's work (in his absence) and making fun of it.
At the time I highly admired all three novelists. Sadly I admit this disparagement of Jones's skill influenced me to regard him for a while thereafter in a lesser light. Time has proven to be the true test of their merits in my estimation, all three of them. Simply put, Some Came Running is more real to me today than anything I have read by Mailer or Styron—and not only because I've just finished reading it again. It is the reason I read it again. I remember Mailer and Styron as clever wordsmiths—Mailer, especially. Brilliant even. But that's about all I remember of their work. It was top-tier, original literary writing, which no doubt dazzled the hell out of me at the time I read it, but which has not remained with me at any depth.
Best-selling novelist Elmore Leonard in the most oft-repeated of his ten rules of writing said, “If it sounds like writing, I rewrite it.” But of course top-tier literary writers thumb their nose at such advice. Theirs might as well be, if it doesn't sound like writing, I rewrite it. Leonard Michaels blamed his lack of commercial success on this concept, despite winning literary awards for his essays and short fiction and seeing his novel The Men's Club made into a movie. Michaels said in an entry to his journal: “My writing feels warm until I revise, make it better, and then it gets cold. I should revise further, mess up my sentences, make them warm, make money.” If this sounds cynical, here's an insightful squib from the introduction to a published abridgment of his journal, Time out of Mind: “I believed the notebooks contained 'real feelings.' not social feelings.”
And here he is again: “Style is the way an action continues to be like itself. It's an imitation of necessity. Max J. Friedlander, my favorite art historian, says, 'unconscious action leads to style. Conscious action to mannerism...the art form, insofar as it springs from the soul, is style, insofar as it issues from the mind is manner.”
Don't get me wrong, I love good writing. I'm not saying good writing precludes genius, or that genius must break the rules of good writing. I can't tell you what it takes a writer to reach genius. And it's apparent to me the “snooty 'ivory tower' literary establishment” can't, either. But I do know this: James Jones created a world that entering even only half of has kept me inside it for half a century. He did this by increments: subtle layers of consciousness, language and voice. You're in the main characters' heads whether they're actively thinking or merely in tune with the narrator, whose voice morphs into that of whichever character's point of view we are sharing. (I've gotten so accustomed to Jones's leaving the apostrophes out of contractions I almost did it above. It was a little distracting at first in the reading, and I really see no artistic need for it, but eventually if I noticed it at all I found myself enjoying the author's little literary bird flips.)
Come to think of it, there's something more particular within the world of Some Came Running that's held me prisoner all these years, although the ambience of the fictitious Parkman, Ill., tickles so many memories of my own hometown in Wisconsin I'm sure it is part of its hold on me. And I've no doubt this backdrop, this so familiar setting with its ways and its people, their attitudes and outlooks and vernacular, so familiar I find myself unconsciously substituting characters from my childhood for those in the novel, so familiar I feel the heavy pull of nostalgia for a hometown I haven't seen for so long and might not ever see again, this imaginary Parkman, Ill., has its own permanent residence somewhere in my memory. But the real, inclusive grip Some Came Running has on me, has on my heart and most likely always will, is a damned kitchen. Yes, you read that right. A kitchen.
It's the kitchen in the house where Gwen lives with her father, English professor/poet Bob. It is where they spend most of their time when they're home, where they entertain Dave and help him with his novel on his many many visits to the place they call Last Retreat. Long and rough-beamed, with a roaring brick fireplace at one end, this kitchen in my imagination glows with a soft amber light that brings a mystical life to the woodwork, the laden bookshelves and the sensible furniture. When Dave first sees it he imagines he is staring down a huge hall in a medieval castle.
After Dave has had a chance to take in this marvel as a first impression, Bob asks him what he thinks of it. “Its beautiful,” Dave said, “very beautiful.” And it was, too. It was like a haven, like a haven on a snowy blowing freezing night. Like in one of those oldfashioned Christmas card pictures you always loved to look at but didnt much believe in places like that any more.
This imaginary medieval kitchen has haunted my sleep dreams on and off ever since I made its acquaintance the year LBJ came to power. Emotions living there are as potent as any I have known when awake. It's where Gwen weeps alone in anguished frustration at the secret she keeps from everyone, the secret that keeps her from consummating her love for Dave. It's where Dave confronts Gwen, and later Bob, beseeching them with his own anguish over the tortured incomplete love affair.
James Jones alludes to this tragic situation in a special note he included with the original edition:
“There is a character in this novel which may cause surprise, or consternation, or even disbelief, among certain types of readers: that of the lady school teacher. In this connection, the author would like to point out that this character is—though changed and modified and personalized to suit the author’s need, of course—the result of the author’s fascination with, and great admiration for, Miss Emily Dickinson. The author would like to, and chooses to, believe that such ladies could exist in 1950 as well as 1850.”
Indeed, they do yet.
[for more Friday's Forgotten Books see the listing on Patti Abbott's unforgettable blog]