I just finished James Gould Cozzens 1949 Pulitzer winner Guard of Honor. It is nearing midnight, and I believe I have some kind of seasonal illness coming on here at the start of autumn. I truly dislike being sick. I don’t know anyone personally that does, but I particularly dislike this phenomena. I do not get sick often, but when I do I feel like I am a the very edge of death’s door when I do. With that said, I wanted this book to end worse than I want to not be sick. I did not like this book. Cozzens is perhaps the most pretentious writer of all of the Pulitzer winners, or perhaps his smarminess is mistranslated over the decades that separate us. I offer one brief quote which is the longest and most drawn-out description of a joke I have ever read. The joke arrives near the end of the book where there is a situation between a single female officer and a married male officer invites her over for drinks. She has been in the field all day and needs to take a bath. This is 1941 in the book. It would be improper for the female officer to be naked in the same place as a married male officer, so he decides to wait on the balcony. They both did not even think of the idea that someone might barge in and make an already uncomfortable situation even more uncomfortable. The unthinkable happens when another married male officer comes into get his things out of the very bathroom the female officer is using. The divert that crisis, but not before the jig is up and the male officer Captain Hicks has to explain what happened. Then Cozzens has to explain to us what happened in this scene. This is word-for-word how Cozzens goes on to destroy his own not very funny joke.
“From Captain Andrew’s incredulous, really jolted, glance, Nathaniel Hicks must see, with a sort of dumb start of his own, the interpretation Captain Andrews put on this news; an interpretation which Nathaniel Hicks had somehow – a little slow, being a little high [drunk], benignly elevated – actually forgotten about. Lieutenant Turck, in saying that every requirement of propriety would be met, overlooked this one, the unexpected visitor.” It goes on.
“That Nathaniel Hicks had overlooked it, too; that when he told Captain Andrews who was in there and why, he spoke with never a thought of any implications, established , of course, his complete innocence; but unfortunately it established it only for him. He must realize that he now stood in a classic humorous fix – the innocent man surprised with every circumstance of guilt on a stage all set for a long comic misunderstanding. He alone could clear it up, because he alone know how it came about; yet who on earth would, in the circumstances, believe him?” I am not kidding, this actually happened.
That tone and belabored style happens constantly throughout this novel. Cozzens seemed to be under the impression that he was terribly clever, and that he needed to really spell it out for the reader. The most persistent form of this is in the title itself. Guard of Honor in which Cozzens develops several different scenarios in which an official story needs to be given of a circumstance and the main players have to betray some inner moral compass to Guard the Honor of the unit. No character really becomes a villain in an tangible way, though all of them take a very slight hit to their character and rebound from it instantly and conveniently. This book is a product of a post-World War II high patriotic boom and it is not a very convincing version of any of those things. I think that Cozzens means to say that ‘look how image conscious the armed forces and the federal government was during this time,’ and ‘how they will railroad justice and personal integrity to get their way’, but he does not deliver that message in anything that approaches a convincing way, and I am sorry to say that this book thusly then became what it might have hoped to portray, a Guard of Honor for the military during World War II which had a lot of honor to guard I suppose, Unfortunately, this book is just a very flat attempt at being provocative.