Sandy's Reviews > Johnny Got His Gun

Johnny Got His Gun by Dalton Trumbo
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Aug 18, 11

Read in December, 2004

I decided to pick this book up after reading of it in Newman and Jones' excellent overview volume, "Horror: 100 Best Books." While the overwhelming majority of the books discussed therein deal with ghosts, the supernatural, werewolves, vampires and the like, Dalton Trumbo's "Johnny Got His Gun" (1939) deals with horror of a different sort: the horror of war, or, more specifically, war's aftermath.

In this unforgettable novel, we meet a young man named Joe Bonham, a normal guy from Colorado who has been severely injured toward the end of World War I. And I do mean severely. Joe is now a literal basket case. Both of his legs and arms have been amputated and his face has been blown off. He cannot see, hear, taste or talk, and he lies in a hospital bed in an unknown country. His plight makes Helen Keller's seem enviable; indeed, his condition might well be the worst of any character's in any book ever written! Pretty gruesome horror fare, indeed. As Joe lies in his own world, he flashes back to happier days, and we learn of his family experiences, his love conquests and disappointments, his jobs and his friends. We sense that Joe is a sweet, likeable, um, average Joe, which makes us feel for him all the more. We also see, through his stream of consciousness, some hellish glimpses of the battlefield, but for the most part, those fighting scenes are kept to a minimum. Trumbo is more concerned with what war does to men, and unlike Erich Maria Remarque's "All Quiet on the Western Front," the scenes in the trenches are downplayed. In one intense section, Joe realizes that, deaf and blind as he is, he can no longer tell the difference between his waking moments and his horror-filled dreams, and Trumbo really makes us feel his plight. And toward the end of the book, Joe, after many attempts to communicate with his nurses, does succeed in breaking through, and delivers one of the most scathing indictments against warmongers that one could ever hope to read. Trumbo writes in a hot fury, fully aware that the world was gearing up for another global duke-out as he penned his words. And the result is perhaps the best antiwar novel ever written.

H.G. Wells, in his 1908 masterpiece "The War in the Air," treated us to some brilliant passages in which he decried the savage waste that is war, but Trumbo's book is far more passionate, more savage, and the excoriating, blasting denunciations much more prolonged. There IS one thing that Trumbo's book lacks, however, in all its 243 pages, and that is...commas. Imagine that: a 243-page book without a single comma to be found! Such is the breakneck pace with which Trumbo writes; such is Joe's uninterrupted stream of thought. The book is simply written--a junior high school student would have no trouble zipping through it--and yet devastating at the same time. Joe's communication breakthrough, after many years of trying, may very well have your eyes misting up with tears; if not, what happens as a result surely will. This is a book that should prove pretty hard to forget, and that is a good thing. Its message is one that we would all do well to incorporate. Truly, this book should be mandatory reading for all politicians, heads of state, dictators and other public officials, the whole world over...not to mention all thinking adults. It's just that important.
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