Monday, May 19, 2014

Pulitzer Project: Guard of Honor

Guard of Honor won the Pulitzer for Fiction in 1949. When I saw it on the list, the author, James Gould Cozzens, was another writer who fell into the "I'd never heard of him before" category. Cozzens, at least according to Wikipedia, was a successful writer but had a privacy fetish that rivaled J. D. Salinger's. He eschewed publicity tours and speaking engagements; he felt his work should stand or fall on its own merits. Whether or not he would have been quite so anti-publicity if his books hadn't sold well is, of course, debatable. It's easy to have a privacy fetish when you're doing well without having to do book tours; it's a lot harder when the alternative to hawking the book is seeing it on remainder tables.

In any case, Cozzens could write. Guard of Honor is complex and multi-layered;  it is not an easy read although it is an engaging one. The action in the novel takes place over the course of three days at an Army Air Force base in Florida during World War II. The situation mirrors Cozzens' own war experience: he began by writing training manuals and eventually became a press officer. That is, he handled public relations and tried to minimize any potential bad news while playing up the good, and he did so in a position that gave him unparalleled access to what was happening with the Army Air Force. Cozzens was assigned to the staff of General "Hap" Arnold. One of the characters in the novel is a fairly close fit for Cozzens' own life: Captain Hicks has been writing training manuals but is pushing a project that falls more under the rubric of public relations.

The Wikipedia biography of Cozzens notes that he was viewed as too conservative, but I'm not sure how anyone would reach that conclusion from reading this novel. Perhaps it's apparent in his other works, but in Guard of Honor it would be hard to determine just what the author's personal biases were. Two issues that were hot topics at the time were the role of women in the military and the role of African-Americans. Both issues are themes in Guard of Honor. There's a Women's Army Corps detachment at the air base; the controllers in the tower are WACs and they're serving in other positions as well. In some scenes, the WACs are portrayed in a less than flattering light while in others the author is sympathetic to the problems they face. Similarly with the black troops, at times Cozzens allows the characters who oppose integrating the service to express their reservations but in other scenes he lays out the case for integration. One of the least likable characters in the book is a hot-headed smug Northern liberal, but he's balanced out by an equally obnoxious bigoted Southerner. If Cozzens can be labeled as a conservative, it's more likely because of his presenting various characters with moral or ethical dilemmas; he seems to prefer the characters who stick to their principles instead of opting to bend the rules in order to cover someone's ass or who claim the ends justify the means.

One thing that struck me while reading this book was that it reminded me a lot of Catch-22. Of course, Cozzens and Joseph Heller had the shared experience of having served in the Army Air Force so it's not surprising they would have formed similar opinions of the military bureaucracy.

Would I recommend this book to other readers? Yes, with a caveat. Guard of Honor is not an easy read. The structure is complicated. The reader sees events from multiple perspectives and numerous flashbacks as different characters reminisce about how they got to where they are now. This isn't a book a person can skim while sitting in a beach chair. I think it was worth the effort, but other readers may not.

Next up on the list: The Way West by A. B. Guthrie. Once again, it's a book and an author I don't recall ever hearing about before I started this project.


  1. You should enjoy The Way West, light reading but entertaining.

  2. There are exceptions, but flash backs in writing usually annoy me. This book sounds interesting...will take a look.
    the Ol'Buzzard


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