The Books: The White Album, ‘In the Islands’, by Joan Didion

Next book on the essays shelf is The White Album: Essays (FSG Classics), by Joan Didion.

Didion has written a couple of interesting essays about Hawaii. Her family would vacation there when she was a child, and stay at a high-end hotel on the beach, with others of her class and status. She is open about that. This essay, “In the Islands” is another multi-part one, and was written over a ten-year period. There are many different elements to it, and I am wondering if she had been working and worrying over a couple of different essays before making the bold move to put them all together. Didion has many essays like that. She is unafraid of putting a slice of her own life up against text of pure reportage. It is one of her bold gifts.

This essay starts with her husband and baby daughter vacationing in Hawaii at the end of the 60s, and they are mainly there to stave off an impending divorce. (They didn’t end up getting divorced.) She feels disconnected from everything, including her own past, which included those vacations in Hawaii. She lies on the private beach in front of the hotel, and looks around at all of the people “just like her”, and wonders what it all has to say about these “islands”. This personal essay then becomes an essay about “grand hotels”, in general, these palatial echoes of a bygone age. She writes about the history of the Royal Hawaiian Hotel, she looks at old photographs of people getting off of ships with steamer trunks, she watches the waiters walk through the sand. All of this has to do with something important, something that could explain Hawaii. And Didion is always looking for explanations. She takes nothing at face value, even a place like Hawaii, that she knows so well. She is, in many ways, a tourist in her own life. She is from Sacramento, but she doesn’t take Sacramento for granted. She can’t stop writing about Sacramento, she can’t stop questioning it, examining it, delving into it. She is tireless.

After the hotel section, she describes another visit she took to Hawaii in the mid-70s, when she went to visit a graveyard on the side of a volcano where servicemen killed in American wars are buried. At that point, it was filling up from the dead of Vietnam. Didion interviews the caretaker of the cemetery, she stands by and watches a funeral procession. She wonders about the location. One of the things she really gets about Hawaii, that comes out in this essay, is that the place is suffused with war. When most people think of Hawaii, they think of a paradise of palm trees and blue waves. (I, of course, think of Elvis. Elvis was partly responsible for promoting the myth of Hawaii.) But Didion, while she is not immune to the place’s charms, does not think of Paradise when she thinks of Hawaii. She thinks of war. Everywhere she looks are signs of war. There’s a huge military presence in Hawaii, of course. It is a strategic location. There is the USS Arizona (again, with the Elvis connection: It was he, and his benefit concert in 1961, that helped build that memorial). There is the bay of drowned soldiers. There are military bases everywhere. Didion visits that military cemetery trying to get to the heart of Hawaii’s war-like energy. It is a place always ready for attack. It is a famous place. It is not a paradise. It is a brave outpost of an empire, sitting in the middle of the Pacific, vulnerable and ready.

The final two sections of this long essay about Hawaii talks about her multiple visits to Schofield Barracks, made famous by James Jones’ From Here to Eternity. She is obsessed with James Jones. He died in May, 1977. She visits Hawaii a month later, and keeps looking for signs of him. She writes:

Certain places seem to exist mainly because someone has written about them. Kilimanjaro belongs to Ernest Hemingway. Oxford, Mississippi, belongs to William Faulkner, and one hot July week in Oxford I was moved to spend an afternoon walking the graveyard looking for his stone, a kind of courtesy call on the owner of the property. A place belongs forever to whoever claims it hardest, remembers it most obsessively, wrenches it from itself, shapes it, renders it, loves it so radically that he remakes it in his image, and not only Schofield Barracks but a great deal of Honolulu itself has always belonged for me to James Jones.

She keeps looking for displays of his books in bookstores, some acknowledgement of this great “local” writer who had passed, who had written so eloquently about Hawaii. She asks a clerk in a book store if they have From Here to Eternity in stock, and the clerk hasn’t heard of it, but judging from the title, suggests that Didion check the “psychic-science shelf”. Didion writes:

In that instant I thought I grieved for James Jones, a man I never met, but I think I grieved more for all of us: for Jones, for myself, for the sufferers of mean guilts and for their exorcists, for Robert E. Lee Prewitt, for the Royal Hawaiian Hotel and for this golden nitwit who believed eternity to be a psychic science.

She then takes a long visit to Schofield Barracks, because she wants to revisit the place that is so vivid to her from Jones’ book, and I think, on some level, she wants to be with people who would “get” why she was grieving. The military guys would get it (and they do). This is the part of this phenomenal essay that I want to excerpt today. It is unexpectedly moving.

The White Album: Essays (FSG Classics), by Joan Didion

I have never been sure whether the extreme gravity of From Here to Eternity is an exact reflection of the light at Schofield Barracks or whether I see the light as grave because I have read James Jones. “It had rained all morning and then suddenly cleared at noon, and the air, freshly washed today, was like dark crystal in the sharp clarity and sombre focus it gave to every image.” It was in this sombre focus that James Jones rendered Schofield, and it was in this sombre focus that I last saw Schofield, one Monday during that June. It had rained in the morning and the smell of eucalyptus was sharp in the air and I had again that familiar sense of having left the bright coast and entered a darker country. The black outline of the Waianae Range seemed obscurely oppressive. A foursome on the post golf course seemed to have been playing since 1940, and to be doomed to continue. A soldier in fatigues appeared to be trimming a bougainvillea hedge, swinging at it with a scythe, but his movements were hypnotically slowed, and the scythe never quite touched the hedge. Around the tropical frame bungalows where the families of Schofield officers have always lived there was an occasional tricycle but no child, no wife, no sign of life but one: a Yorkshire terrier yapping on the lawn of a colonel’s bungalow. As it happens I have spent time around Army posts in the role of an officer’s child, have even played with lap dogs on the lawns of colonels’ quarters, but I saw this Yorkshire with Prewitt’s eyes, and I hated it.

I had driven out to Schofield in other seasons, but this trip was different. I was making this trip for the same reason I had walked the Oxford graveyard, a courtesy call on the owner. This trip I made appointments, spoke to people, asked questions and wrote down answers, had lunch with my hosts at the Aloha Lightning NCO Club and was shown the regimental trophies and studied the portraits of commanding officers in every corridor I walked down. Unlike the golden children in the Honolulu bookstores these men I met at Schofield, these men in green fatigues, all knew exactly who James Jones was and what he had written and even where he had slept and eaten and probably gotten drunk during the three years he spent at Schofield. They recalled the incidents and locations of From Here to Eternity in minute detail. They anticipated those places that I would of course want to see: D Quad, the old stockage, the stone quarry, Kolekole Pass. Some weeks before, there had been at the post theater a special screening of the movie From Here to Eternity, an event arranged by the Friends of the Tropic Lightning Historical Society, and everyone to whom I spoke at Schofield had turned out for this screening. Many of these men were careful to qualify their obvious attachment to James Jones’s view of their life by pointing out that the Army had changed. Others did not mention the change. One, a young man who had re-upped once and now wanted out, mentioned that it had not changed at all. We were standing on the lawn in D Quad, Jones’s Quad, Robert E. Lee Prewitt’s quad, and I was watching the idle movement around the square, a couple of soldiers dropping a basketball through a hoop, another cleaning an M-16, a desultory argument at the Dutch door of the supply room – when he volunteered a certain inchoate dissatisfaction with his six years in the 25th Division. “I read this book From Here to Eternity,” he said, “and they still got the same little games around here.”

I suppose everything had changed and nothing had. A mess hall was now called a “dining facility,” but they still served chipped beef on toast and they still called it “S.O.S.” A stockade was now called a “confinement facility”, and the confinement facility for all military installations on Oahu was now at Pearl Harbor, but the old stockade at Schofield was now the headquarters for the military police, and during the time I was there the M.O.s brought in a handcuffed soldier, bare to the waist and shoeless. Investigators in aloha shirts chatted in the exercise yard. Office supplies were stored in some of the “close confinement” cells, but there will still the plain wooden bunks, “plate beds,” beds for those occasions, it was explained to me by a major who had once been in charge of the Schofield stockade, “when a guy is completely berserk and starts ripping up his mattress.” On the wall there were still the diagrams detailing the order in which belongings were to be arranged: WHITE TOWEL, SOAP WITH DISH, DEODORANT, TOOTHPASTE, TOOTHBRUSH, COMB, SHAVING CREAM, RAZOR.

In many ways I found it difficult to leave Schofield that day. I had fallen into the narcoleptic movements of the Army day. I had picked up the liquid speech patterns of the Army voice. I took a copy of the Tropic Lightning News back into Honolulu with me, and read it that night in my hotel room. During the month of May the Schofield military police had reported 32 arrests for driving under the influence of alcohol, 115 arrests for possession of marijuana, and the theft of a number of items, including one Sansui amplifier, one Sansui pre-amp and tuner, one Kenwood receiver and turntable, two Bose speakers and the tachometer from a 1969 Ford Mustang. One private, two spec fours and one sergeant were asked in the “Troop Talk” column to name their ideal, or favorite, post. One chose Fort Hood. Another chose Fort Sam Houston. None chose Schofield Barracks. In the letters column one correspondent advised a WAC who had objected to the shows at the NCO Club to stay home (“We once had it set up where you girls didn’t have to see the entertainment, but the loverly libbers put an end to that”), and another advised “barracks rats” to stop limiting their lives to “erasing Army hatred by indulging in smoke or drink or listening to Peter Frampton at eighty decibels.” I thought about barracks rats and I thought about Prewitt and Maggio and I thought about Army hatred and it seemed to me that night in Honolulu that only the details had changed, that James Jones had known a great simple truth: the Army was nothing more or less than life itself. I wish I could tell you that on the day in May when James Jones died someone had played a taps for him at Schofield Barracks, but I think this is not the way life goes.

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1 Response to The Books: The White Album, ‘In the Islands’, by Joan Didion

  1. Clinton Corbett says:

    Who better to capture and describe the brilliance of From Here to Eternity than Joan Didion. Thanks.

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