1 FEBRUARY 1963, Page 25

Heart and Bust

Two American epic novels this week are both probably, bound for the British best-seller lists. To anyone who cares about prose, let alone humanity, one has heart and the other has only fatty degeneracy.

The hero of The Thin Red Line, a less roman- tic, more ferocious book than the author's From Here to Eternity, is C for Charlie Company. They arrive for their first battle on Guadalcanal. where Jones served and was wounded. The story follows them through two operations and the delirious, drunken rest period between.

Obviously this is a book against ‘N ar, told simply and with much terrible detail, in the best traditicin of Goya. Death is often slow, often deliberately cruel, often ostentatiously use- less. Fear. 'is only driven out by numbness or madness, Love is reduced to a pitiable fumbling between men who reassure themselves that they're really normal. Honour is reduced to im- potent protests against incompetent officers and atrocious revenges against the Japanese. Com- munication is reduced to stark naked language. punctuated always with obscenities. Only one man in the book thinks about why he is fighting and thinks he knows the answer. He is the mad Sergeant Welsh, who tramps into the carnage reciting: Property, property, all for property.' The language, apart from a few lapses, is always taut. This book is important as an anti- dote•to the Boy's Own Paper romanticism which .obscures horror in most war novels and films. It tells vividly, and with unbearable honesty. how men really die.

The Carpetbaggers is the kind of best-seller so efficiently and mechanically designed that the only way to do it justice is by some sort of statistical analysis. Lacking a computer, I'll do my best. It is a Hollywood novel, but so un- focused is its sense of place that it tells far less about that sprawl in 679 pages than Nathaniel West told in one page of The Day of the LocuAr. The Carpetbaggers runs on cheap thrills. Now sex is certainly important enough to be worth a good proportion of any serious writer's time and space, but a long series of planted sexual innuendoes, recited in shallow terms, must amount to a corrupt book. One of the central cut-outs in The Carpetbaggers is a film star called Rina Marlowe. Her charac ter can be summed up in the words: a 13,2 bust.' At a quick count her bosom is described on pages 221/2 45, 172, 220, 222, 223, 224, 227 230, 259, 309, 314 and 321. (She dies on page 336.) The scholar will find other references to her breasts, including pages 192-198, in which th° problems of displaying them in films are discussed and demonstrated at great length. Rina also makes love in various ways to various sexes, eleven times.

Other significant passages in the first half of the novel include instructions for cooking a dog. Red Indian marriage rites, the torture of a man and the torture and mass rape of his wife, a murderer eaten by ants (took him three days to die), a whipping on a prison farm, another whipping, another murderer killed with a white- hot poker. lesbianism, voyeurism, sadistic homo- sexuality and a boy seduced beside the body of a man he has just killed. After Rina's death, the pace slows from approximately one sexual climax every seventeen pages to one every forty-three. Is this fair, even if one act takes place in a bath- tub bubbling with champagne? I can only excuse it by pointing out that the heroine of the second half, Jennie Denton, is in turn a hospital nurse, a Hollywood courtesan, a film star and a nun. The last of these callings may have been a logi- cal progression, but it certainly played hell with her average.