Johnny Got His Gun by Dalton Trumbo is seeped in nostalgia, wakeful fitful dreams, a scream for peace, slow realisations, wants and wishes, hopes and acceptance of absolute human tragedy – of so many things that your heart will grow heavy with a howling need to shun violence for ever and ever. “He was running through the night shrieking. Running through a whole series of nights running through an eternity of nights yelling...”. The whole book is a long-drawn out, reverberating plea to stop wars.
The protagonist Joe Bonham, who has lost his hands, legs, most of his face – including all the senses of hearing, tongue and nose – learns bit by bit, amid recollections that come through as dreams in semi-consciousness, to understand how much of his body has been lost, and how to cope with it. “When he had run without legs until he was tired and when he had screamed without voice until his throat hurt he fell back into the womb back into the quietude back into the loneliness and the blackness and the terrible silence.” But he is trapped hopelessly nevertheless. “Inside his skull there was a normal man with arms and legs and everything that goes with them. It was he Joe Bonham trapped in the darkness of his own skull rushing frantically from ear-hole to ear-hole wherever in the skull there might be an opening. Like a wild animal he was trying to hammer his way out to escape into the world beyond.”
He spends his time reminiscing about the past, thinking of things he could do, wondering about reality, chasing random thoughts. The memories are mostly pleasant, typical of any teenager, but brutal when looked at in the context of his total disability.
The protagonist likens himself to a dead man – a dead man who can think, he says. And through his experiences lying in the hospital, you know what utter, desolate loneliness truly is. It's not just lack of people around you, but the lack of the ability to communicate with anyone, not even yourself. The chapter where Joe is trying to understand time brings that to the fore. “The muscles in his back and thighs and stomach stiffened because he knew it was coming. He could almost feel the sweat squeeze out of his body as he tried to hold his breath lest he miss it. The pieces of skin on each side of his neck and the half of his forehead seemed to tingle as if they had been paralyzed and now were getting a fresh supply of blood. It felt as if the pores of his neck were actually reaching out to grab at the change to suck it in... It seemed like he lay there stiff and expectant and excited for hours. There were times when he was sure that the nerves of his neck were not registering when it seemed they had suddenly gone numb and that the change might slip away from him. And then there were other times when it felt as if his nerves had jabbed through so near the surface of his skin that there was actual pain sharp and fine and penetrating as they groped to register the change.” He is trying to catch the heat of sunlight on the only bare portion of skin on his neck and forehead.
Then a chapter of him learning to tell his nurses apart. I cried. “When a new nurse came in he always knew what she would do first. She would pull the covers off him and then she would make no movements for a minute or two and he would know she was looking at him and probably getting a little sick. One of them turned and ran out of the room and didn’t come back. That way he didn’t get his urinal and so he wet the bed but he forgave her for it. Another one cried. He felt her tears on the chest of his night shirt. He got a little passionate because he suddenly felt she was very close to him and he lay in pain for hours after she left.” All he has for himself are the imaginary situations he can place himself in with his memories, and he makes the most of it.
The loneliness slowly grows into paranoia, but of the kind that cannot be expressed – just in the head! no action! no expression! The feeling, pitiable as it is, is almost unimaginably horrid. When a new day nurse comes in and “breaks through the barrier” and tries to communicate with him – the joy Joe experiences chokes one up completely.
I added Johnny Got His Gun in my to-read list because it featured in Flavorwire's “50 Incredibly Tough Books to Read”. Though I did not find the book “incredibly tough”, it is haunting – the narrative, more often than not omitting commas from sentences, leading to a tumble of words that a reader can completely identify with the protagonist, flits between the past and the present through varying levels of Joe Bonham's consciousness. Despite the hopelessness of his situation, Joe does not give up. Even in his total lack of mobility and sensitivity, he endeavours to try and be curious and improve his situation. This is what actually brings tears to one's eyes – the incessant clawing at the wall of faith, without gathering anything.
On another note, life in Joe's time seems so similar to a typical rural or semi-urban India that it was very easy to relate to. The wives and mothers doing all the work – the home-grown food, the preserves, pickles, jams and wines that the mothers crowded the cellars with, the chivalry and the chauvinism... it makes you wonder.