Zinsser on Friday

No Second Act

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By William Zinsser


 

The American writer John Horne Burns was one of those literary meteorites that hurtle across the sky and then burn up. Nobody remembers him today. But I’ll never forget how his World War II novel The Gallery once intersected with my life.

In 1944 I was a 21-year-old Army private, formerly a sheltered son of the Eastern Establishment, newly deposited in Casablanca. I was in North Africa! Me! Nobody in my life had ever mentioned the Arabs. Our heritage was Europe; everything else was terra incognita.

The next day my fellow GIs and I were loaded onto a train of “forty-and-eights,” decrepit wooden boxcars first used by the French army in World War I to carry 40 men or eight horses. Eight horses would have been more comfortable. For six days I sat in the open door of that boxcar with my legs hanging out over Morocco, Algeria, and Tunisia, a wide-eyed kid on a sensory high, intoxicated by new sights and sounds and smells. I loved the hubbub at the stations–Fez! Sidi Bel Abbes! Oujda!–and I romanticized the Arabs themselves, even the skinny kids with beautiful smiles who ran alongside our train and pestered us for C rations and cigarettes.

Soon enough I would understand that the Arabs weren’t “picturesque.” They were a severely deprived people, many with skin and eye diseases that modern medicine knew how to cure. It was the beginning of, if not wisdom, at least the knowledge that “abroad” is a complicated place, not reducible to travel-poster simplicities.

After six months in North Africa–the war itself had moved on–my unit was sent to Italy. The Naples that greeted our Liberty ship was a brutally bombed city, its docks wrenched out of shape, its buildings blown open, some of them revealing the wallpapered rooms of a former domestic life. Naples was the only port of supply and evacuation for the Allied campaign in Italy, which had stalled for eight months near Cassino with heavy casualties. Everything and everybody went in and out of Naples–exhausted troops on leave, wounded soldiers brought back to hospitals, and a company of predominantly black GIs who worked the docks.

After the war the first two big literary hits were novels of combat: Norman Mailer’s The Naked and the Dead and Irwin Shaw’s The Young Lions. But neither was my book for my war–the one that every returning serviceman hopes someone will write, catching in a mirror of familiarity his particular moment in some pocket of the larger war. Nobody was going to write that book for me.

Then, in 1948, somebody did. John Horne Burns’s The Gallery, about an American soldier’s coming of age in North Africa and Italy, was published to high critical praise. I hurried out to buy it and could hardly believe how many of the same streets the author and I had walked on–in Algiers, in Oran, in Naples–and how many of the same attitudes we shared. He even took my train ride across Africa on a “forty-and-eight.” Burns, I learned, was a Harvard graduate with a Phi Beta Kappa key and a degree in English literature. After college he taught for six years at the Loomis School, in Connecticut, until he was called up by the Army.

The Gallery consists of alternating chapters called “Promanades” (Algiers, Oran, Casablanca) and “Portraits” (Hal, Momma, Giulia). All the men and women have some connection to the Galleria Umberto, a lofty arcade shaped like a cross that was the emotional heart of wartime Naples. Americans and Neapolitans came there at all hours to drink in its bars and shop in its shops and above all to buy and sell at black-market prices. Sex was one of the main items for sale.

To Burns, an Irish Catholic, the Galleria was rich in symbols. “Look at the design of this place–like a huge cross laid on the ground after the corpus is taken off the nails.” Every character in his book symbolizes a type that Burns either loves or disapproves of. Louella, the Red Cross worker, represents American smugness. Momma, owner of the gay bar, represents Italian tolerance. Moe is the compassionate Jew, Maria the demure prostitute, Chaplain Bascom the hard-line Baptist.

The Americans were rich and the Italians were starving–that was the central degradation of the city. But who was more degraded: the Italians hustling to feed their families, or the GIs selling their cheaply bought PX goods at a huge profit? Burns fell in love with the despised “Eye-ties” and “Ginzos” surviving with gallantry and grace, and hated the arrogance of American privilege and power. He thereby wrote the proto-Vietnam novel, anticipating by a generation the hubris that “the ugly American” would bring to another foreign land. Burns’s loss of innocence is the book’s persistent theme.

Riding high on his royalties from The Gallery, Burns quit his teaching job and wrote a novel called Lucifer with a Book, about a teacher in a school not unlike Loomis, which was attacked with a ferocity unusual even for critics lying in wait for second novels. He moved to Italy, wrote one more novel, A Cry of Children, which was also a failure, and drank himself to death in 1953 at the age of 36.

“He seemed to have lost some inner sense of self, gained in the war, lost in peace,” his admirer Gore Vidal recalled in a memoir of Burns. “Night after night he would stand at the Excelsior Hotel bar in Florence, drinking brandy, insulting imagined enemies and imagined friends, all the while complaining about what had been done to him by book reviewers. In those years one tried not to think of Burns; it was too bitter. The best of us all had taken the worst way.” Like Burns, Vidal was a young writer who first came to attention with a World War II novel (Williwaw), as did Mailer and James A. Michener (Tales of the South Pacific). But each of those writers used his first novel as a launching pad, steadily expanding his interests to achieve a long and spacious career.

Recently I dusted off my copy of The Gallery to read it again. I was curious to know who Burns and I were in 1944. Revisited in 2011, The Gallery has the strength of its original vision and the weakness of the tendency of people in their 20s to think that their insights are uniquely sensitive. Fair enough: I know better than to reread the wartime letters I wrote home that are still in the shoebox my mother saved them in. I’m sure they are littered with rosy adjectives and sophomoric grand truths. But they were my grand truths, valid at that moment in my life, and I tried to keep that in mind as I again made the journey with Burns and found his book more ornate than I remembered. But at that age Burns’s grand truths were no less valid than mine. We were two Ivy League naifs, soaking it all up, eager to believe that the world was still young.

I also saw–as I couldn’t have known in 1948–that The Gallery anticipated three later classics of the World War II literature: Herman Wouk’s The Caine Mutiny, Thomas Heggen’s Mister Roberts, and Joseph Heller’s Catch-22. Burns’s psychopathic Major Motes is the ancestor of Wouk’s Captain Queeg, of Heggen’s Captain Morton, and of Heller’s grand lunatics who keep Yossarian flying combat missions after he is entitled to go home. On a deeper level–compassion for the defeated–The Gallery laid a foundation for Norman Lewis’s masterful Naples ’44.

It was Burns’s bad luck to write his best book first. Like Thomas Heggen, another early suicide, he lived with the growing knowledge that The Gallery was the product of a heightened moment in his life, the only one he was going to get.

William Zinsser is the author of 18 books, including On Writing Well.


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