Enthralling Books: Johnny Got His Gun

This is one in a series of essays about enthralling books. I asked my friends and colleagues to recommend a book that took over their life. I told them the book didn't have to be a literary masterpiece. The only thing that mattered was that the book captivated them and carried them into the world within its pages, making them ignore the world around them. I asked: "Did you shirk responsibilities so you could read it? Did you call in sick? Did you read it until dawn? That's the book I want you to tell us about!" See all the essays in the Enthralling Book series here. — Mark

Johnny got his gun

Johnny Got His Gun, by Dalton Trumbo

I hadn't read my first complete book of fiction until I was twenty-one: The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger. I read it all in one night, identifying so strongly with the adolescent alienation of Holden Caulfield that I wrote a letter to Salinger, asking permission to use his character in a novel I planned to write. He gave the most appropriate response he possibly could — he completely ignored my request. His Zen silence was so eloquent that for years I would continue to cringe with embarrassment at how incredibly naïve I had been.

In 1953, publisher friend and mentor Lyle Stuart lent me the second novel I read, Johnny Got His Gun by Dalton Trumbo, who had been an unfriendly witness before the House Un-American Activities Committee. “I shall answer in my own words,” he testified. “Very many questions can be answered ‘Yes’ or ‘No’ only by a moron or a slave.”

As a result, he became a victim of the Hollywood blacklist and won an Academy Award for best screenplay under an assumed name. He finally used his own name in the screen credits for Spartacus.

Johnny Got His Gun, originally published in 1939, was about a soldier so severely wounded that, with the aid of modern medical technology, he remained alive but without the senses of sight, hearing, smell and taste. He had nothing left except the sense of touch and his consciousness. The first half was how he came to realize his situation, and the second half was what he could do about it.

That book had such a tremendous impact on me, it served as my literary Bible. The gospel wasn’t about the antiwar stance so much as the urge to communicate. I was afraid that every book I read after that would be anti-climactic.

“There's a whole generation who never even heard of it,” I said to Lyle Stuart. “Why don't you publish a new edition?” Which he did.

He also lent me Kingsblood Royal by Sinclair Lewis. It was about a white man who discovered that he had “Negro blood.” Lyle felt so strongly about the race issue that when he had been courting a lovely redhead, smart and witty, he told her that he was “part Negro.” She passed the test and they got married.

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