Chapter 85: “Guard of Honor” by James Gould Cozzens (1949)

“The whole morning had been upsetting, with too many things going on at once. Counting his own pulse, Colonel Ross could tell that his blood pressure, which troubled him occasionally, must be up, close to the point where the headache would begin.”

guard of honorAfter an absolutely grueling, soul-crushing two months, I have finally finished James Gould Cozzens’s 1949 Pulitzer Prize winning novel, Guard of Honor. And I couldn’t possibly be happier.

I’m not going to beat around the bush here; instead, I’m just going to come out with it: this book is terrible. Never could I have imagined that a novel could make World War II seem so boring and monotonous; but Guard of Honor made it seem easy!

I honestly don’t even know where to begin with this book. I’m not sure I could even accurately summarize it. Here goes my best effort: “the old guard of officers on an Air Force base during World War II attempt to guard the honor of the Air Force following a fistfight between white and black pilots.” Or, maybe: “Air Force officers perpetuate racism and segregation despite federal orders to end it.”

Cozzens tells this story over around 600 pages, with one or two major plot points that make up for about 10% of those pages, a couple dozen central characters that are nearly impossible to keep straight, and three days (which is ironic, considering how long it takes one to finish this book). Everything in between—you know, the other 90% of the book—was Cozzens droning on and on and on and on about bureaucracy, red tape, and paperwork. This book could have been a really interesting and engaging look at race relations in pre-Civil Rights era America; instead it was a long, slow, torturous, in-depth investigation into paper-pushing, codgery, pithy, pomp and circumstance, and conservatism. An absolute nightmare of a read.

I am simply astonished and utterly dumbfounded at Cozzens’s choice to tell this story in that manner. It is nearly impossible to focus on the story because the prose is so damn boring. I can’t tell you how many times I had to re-read sentences paragraphs pages entire sections of the book because it was so hard to focus on what was happening. There were times when I’d be reading, reading, reading, then all of a sudden I was wasn’t actually reading anymore, instead just flipping the pages like a brainless automaton. And when I finished the book, that’s exactly how I felt—brainless. As if my brain had melted into a puddled pool of goop.

Don’t be like me, folks; don’t slog through this one. There is a vast selection of far superior World War II novels to be read and life is just too damn short.

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