Rafeeq O.'s Reviews > Glory for Me

Glory for Me by MacKinlay Kantor
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it was amazing

MacKinlay Kantor's 1945 Glory for Me, the blank-verse novel later adapted into the classic black-and-white The Best Years of Our Lives, is beautiful 5-star read that is by turns witty and haunted and romantic, and ultimately life-affirming.

Most readers, I presume, will have come to Kantor's novel via love of the 1946 film starring Dana Andrews, Teresa Wright, Myrna Loy, and Frederic March, so a word on the title seems in order. For a work about combat veterans returning to the sunny, untouched Midwestern streets of home, after all, The Best Years of Our Lives is a title immediately understood. I confess that the tale's original title of Glory for Me at first struck me most peculiarly. Was this some sort of self-aggrandizing? If so, then the book sure was going to be different from the movie... Well, the book is different in many respects, but of course it is no swaggering rah-rah. The "Glory for me," one learns on page 2, is a line from a hymn by Charles H. Gabriel: the reward received "When all my labors and trials are o'er / And I am safe on that beautiful shore..." So, yes, for soda-jerk-turned-bombardier Fred Derry, the tough sergeant whom the once-soft banker Al Stephenson has become, and grievously wounded sailor Homer Wermels, their hometown Boone City indeed should be Heaven.

But is it? No. For "Fred Derry, twenty-one, and killer of a hundred men" (page 3), and Al with his "voice...low / And smooth and wholly courteous / But hard as concrete underneath" (page 8), and Homer with "a little telephone...doing things" in his brain so that "[s]pacticity...diagnosed a dozen times" (page 13) makes his walk shambling and his speech almost unintelligible, are like "many million other men": "afraid," "resentful," not "trust[ing] the people they had left" and yet needing to "learn to trust them," just as "[t]hey'd have to learn the U.S.A. / Like any immigrant who tries to speak / His bits of history aloud before a flag" (page 10).

Fred, for example, who kneeling in the plexiglas nose of his B-17 has massaged the "[e]leven thousand dollars worth of well-tooled steel / And glass and jewelry" (page 19) of the top-secret Norden bombsight, actually has nothing to which to return. His father is a lush, his stepmother merely tolerated, his wife a tramp, his old job menial kids' stuff. Twenty-one he is, twenty-one...but he has seen friends go down in the flak, and has made love to a titled English lady, and had the best tailored uniforms from Saville Row, with hundreds of pounds in his pocket--"Pounds sterling: multiply by four, and you have dollars" (page 21)...and multiply by 10 or 12, and you have what those dollars would be worth today.

Well, but you know the gist, right? Actually, while the film with which we all are familiar is tidy and pat, almost every tidy and pat scene we can think of has been changed from Kantor's novel. That's all right, though. The movie is excellent for a movie, but the book is a different sort of animal, yet still an animal of great power and lethal grace.

Without getting into any of the interesting differences in detail and plot--except to comment that with Dana Andrews looking 30-ish in the 1946 film, I had to keep nudging myself to remember that the "toughly proud" Fred of the novel, "young and hard and mean" (page 3), is only a very world-weary 21--let us simply say that all the pieces still fit. There are remembered terrors, and confused longings, and hope against hope in a world that seems impossible. It isn't even a postwar world either. The movie lets us assume it is, and yet midway through we come to realize that although Germany has been defeated, Japan still stands fanatical and defiant. We of decades, even generations, later know that in only a few months the B-29s of 20th Air Force--and only two of them, really--will wrap up the show, but at the time of Kantor's writing, "Golden Gate in '48" was the timeframe imagined after the planned invasion of the Home Islands. Thus there would be ever more like Fred and Al and Homer in the coming years, it was presumed.

MacKinlay Kantor's Glory for Me is a beautiful, bleak, and touching 268-page, 56-chaptered poem so much more condensed than ordinary prose, and sometimes lyrical. Shifting from a flavorful and distilled third-person narrative to first-person among the three main characters, and even through surprising second-person passages directed at "you" the reader suddenly become one of the servicemen, and back again, Kantor explores the plight and the possibilities of homecoming. Especially for readers interested in the Second World War--preferably also with knowledge in military aviation of the period, as the opening pages might feel a bit cryptic and off-putting without it--Glory for Me is a powerful book well worth the read.

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Reading Progress

October 4, 2020 – Started Reading
October 7, 2020 – Finished Reading
October 10, 2020 – Shelved

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