The Secret Lives of Used Books (The Revolt of Mamie Stover, by William Bradford Huie)
This book hails from the Atlanta Public Library — a jewel of brutalism, the architectural style that reigned from the 1950s to the 1970s. Owing to legendary southern efficiency, however, this iteration of the APL didn’t open its doors until 1980, almost ten years after the design was floated and just when postmodernism was entering its ascendancy.
The library was designed by Marcel Breuer, the architect behind the building that housed New York’s Whitney Museum from 1966 to 2014. Upon the opening of the then-new Whitney — with its looming, overwhelming façade (which one wag likened to “an inverted Babylonian ziggurat”) — the New York Times architecture critic Ada Louise Huxtable wrote, “Like that fine old saying about sin, first the Whitney repulses; then it intrigues; and finally it is embraced.”
Sin is the right evocation, if only because in certain conditions the Breuer Building (as the old Whitney is now called) possesses the shadowy, expressionist appeal of a film-noir setting. It’s amazing what a little uplighting can do. It might even lend a moody tension to the Atlanta Public Library, which — on the bookplate — looks almost like an overlit block of lead type, face down.
Another thing that’s changed over the years almost as radically as architectural styles is the way the so-called Greatest Generation has been portrayed in books and movies. Members of that generation rarely draped themselves and their exploits in the glory that later generations would eventually heap upon them. To read the war literature of Norman Mailer and James Jones (to take only the two most obvious examples) is to enter a world of lacerating contempt — for the idea of heroism and noble sacrifice; for the notions of a great cause; for the war, the military, the government, society, the lot. To read Joseph Heller’s Catch-22 is to enter a world of satiric contempt for same. Each of those writers saw combat — Mailer in the Philippines, Jones on Guadalcanal, and Heller as a bombardier in the Italian campaign.
William Bradford Huie, a World War II veteran himself, went for a tone of darkly comic cynicism in a couple of his war novels, including The Revolt of Mamie Stover (1951), about a lesser-known corner of the Arsenal of Democracy — the flesh trade in wartime Honolulu — and the opportunity it afforded one used and abused beauty queen.
[W]hen Bertha Parchman’s girls were drafted into the Army, they knew that the old unhurried years were ended. Honolulu had to become the Detroit of harlotry. Whores had to embrace mass production; they had to build a better assembly line; they had to modernize or starve. So with their carpenters and plumbers they hovered over diagrams, took readings on slide-rules, debated new plans for serving the largest number of customers in the shortest possible time. They had to arrange for a quick turnover. They had to become efficiency experts, speed-up artists, if the fighting men of America were to be properly processed in the crusade for democracy.
Huie’s best-known work might be The Americanization of Emily (1959), which was turned into a hit antiwar film in 1964, starring James Garner and Julie Andrews. Garner plays Charlie Madison, a sybaritic aide-de-camp and procurer for an American admiral in pre-Normandy invasion Britain. The embodiment of the British wartime lament about Yanks being “overpaid, oversexed, and over here,” Charlie is, in Emily’s estimation (and his own), “amoral,” “a shameless coward,” and “selfish as a child.” He’s also deeply distrustful of any tendency to sentimentalize war:
War isn’t hell at all. It’s man at his best; the highest morality he’s capable of. It’s not war that’s insane, you see. It’s the morality of it. It’s not greed or ambition that makes war: it’s goodness. Wars are always fought for the best of reasons: for liberation or manifest destiny. Always against tyranny and always in the interest of humanity. So far this war, we’ve managed to butcher some ten million humans in the interest of humanity. Next war it seems we’ll have to destroy all of man in order to preserve his damn dignity. It’s not war that’s unnatural to us, it’s virtue. As long as valor remains a virtue, we shall have soldiers. So, I preach cowardice. Through cowardice, we shall all be saved.
More, this time with Charlie addressing a British matron and war widow:
I don’t trust people who make bitter reflections about war, Mrs. Barham. It’s always the generals with the bloodiest records who are the first to shout what a hell it is. It’s always the war widows who lead the Memorial Day parades . . . We shall never end wars, Mrs. Barham, by blaming it on the ministers and generals, or warmongering imperialists, or all the other banal bogeys. It’s the rest of us who build statues to those generals and name boulevards after those ministers. The rest of us who make heroes of our dead and shrines of our battlefields. We wear our widow’s weeds like nuns, Mrs. Barham, and perpetuate war by exalting its sacrifices.
Such withering disregard stands in stark contrast to the solemnity and reverence of works like Saving Private Ryan and Band of Brothers. Granted, comparing an antiwar comedy with a couple of straight war dramas is an exercise in apples and oranges. But there’s almost certainly significance to the fact that, like Mailer, Jones, and Heller, several of the leading talents involved with The Americanization of Emily were combat veterans. The film’s director, Arthur Hiller, flew missions as part of a bomber crew over occupied Europe. The screenwriter, Paddy Chayefsky, was wounded by a landmine in Germany. And James Garner was wounded twice in Korea. By comparison, the combined military experience of the leading figures involved with Ryan and Band of Brothers — director/creator Steven Spielberg, screenwriter Robert Rodat, writer Stephen Ambrose, and star/creator Tom Hanks — apparently adds up to nothing more than some years of college ROTC for Ambrose.
Perhaps it’s all just a generational difference, like that between brutalist and postmodern architecture. Or maybe it’s that one’s ability to sentimentalize war typically grows in direct proportion to how little (if at all) one has experienced it. War, after all, is brutalizing.