I had never heard of Johnny Got His Gun when I grabbed it off the library’s display of new books. Of course, it wasn’t a new book, but a reissue. I had no idea that Dalton Trumbo’s book was considered one of the greatest anti-war novels. I am going to completely leave my own opinions about war out of this review and just focus on the book.
I was actually more familiar with the story than I knew.
The heavy metal band Metallica wrote a song called “One.” In the video for the song, a man wrapped in bandages tries to communicate with nurses and doctors. He is armless, legless, and as the book revealed…faceless.
This is Joe Bonham, the main character from Johnny Got His Gun. He has suffered horrific injuries in World War I. The entire book takes place inside his mind as he tries to make sense of what has happened to him. He is frequently under sedation, leading to many stream-of-consciousness passages that, while hard for me to follow at times (sometimes is is impossible to distinguish between fantasy and reality), perform their own sort of work in conveying the character’s state of mind.
We watch Joe as he struggles to count the passing of days by the feeling of the sun on his skin through the window and the ministrations of the nurses. He attempts suicide by trying to suffocate himself, but can’t–he is prevented by the tracheotomy he has been given.
Eventually he learns Morse code and begins attempting to communicate with the nurses by tapping his head against his pillow. By this point he has made a decision. Once he can get someone to realize he is communicating, he wants to be put inside of a glass box and toured throughout the country, serving as an example of what a war can do to a man.
I won’t tell you what happens when he finally gets the chance to give the message to the military.
This is not a book that I enjoyed, but that is not the point. I’m glad I read it, both for the author’s willingness to make his views of war known–Dalton Trumbo was put on the Hollywood blacklist for writing the book–and for the places it took me to.
I can never know what war is like, or what it is like to come home from combat, and hopefully I will never learn what it means to cope with horrific bodily harm. I feel like this book might have given me a glimpse at the edges. It affected me more than many books about war have.