"The only joy in the world is to begin...." Cesare Pavese

"The only joy in the world is to begin...." Cesare Pavese

Friday, March 16, 2018

He really believed he bought it: The Pistol by James Jones

…."Why does everybody want my pistol?" Mast said, almost plaintively.

"Well, why do you want it yourself?" Burton said.

"I don't really know. I guess it's because of those Samurai sabers. I got a hunch—a very strong hunch—it might save me from one of them someday. And I want to be saved. I guess it makes me feel more comfortable."

"Well, you can pretty nearly bet the others feel like you do," Burton said. "That's always a safe bet, I've found. You notice the Topkicker has one, in addition to his rifle. So does old Sergeant Pender."

"Sergeant Pender's had his since the first World War."

Doesn't matter. He's got it. And so does everybody else who can get themselves hold of one. I see no reason why I shouldn't have one too, if I can get one. You know yourself, Mast, that it's always the squad leaders and the officers that those Jap officers head for. We're more of a target than you privates. I could give you a lot of yak about me having responsibilities to my men and all that guff, and it wouldn't be entirely untrue either. But it ain't really the main point. The main point's that I want to be saved out of this war just as you or anybody."

"And so you want to buy my chance of being saved away from me."

"Sure, if I can. And don't forget, I'm offering you a higher price than anybody else around here could."

"Yeah, okay. And then what'll happen to me when we get into combat?"

"Hell, Mast, this outfit may never get into combat. We may sit the whole war out guardin' this island. And it's damned unlikely the Japs will ever try to invade it now. And if that happens, if we do stay here, well, I'm just out and you're ahead, that's all. I'm just gambling with you, that's the size of it."

"Some gamble," Mast said unhappily.

"If the outfit did go into combat, there's no reason why you should have to. With your education," Burton said. "Being a high school graduate and all, you could go into the orderly room or get yourself a good desk job, even, in personnel or someplace else in the Rear Echelon. Any time you wanted."

"Yeah, everybody tells me that. Everybody that wants my pistol, anyway. I don't want a job in the Rear Echelon. I'm not yellow."

"But maybe you'd be helping the war effort better if you did."

"To hell with the war effort. I'm not yellow. I may be scared, but I'm not a coward."

"Well, that's up to you," Burton said. "I think you're silly. Not to take advantage of a safe deal like that.

"Anyway, just don't sell my roadguard short. It's a hell of a good deal. Hell, we're even cookin' our own meals down there now. We get hamburger every day off those people. Steak, every other day. And we've always got some whiskey around. Don't think my roadguard ain't a good deal."

"Yeah. I know that," Mast said unhappily.

"Take some time to think about it," Burton said. "Don't make up your mind right now. I know it's a tough decision. I'll come back later." He got up off the rock outcropping where they had both been sitting, nodded brusquely, and started off. But after he had gone a few yards, he stopped and turned back.

"Don't think I didn't think a long time about it before deciding to make you an offer like this. But I don't think it's bad or dishonorable. Otherwise I wouldn't do it."

There was a look almost of appeal in Burton's level gaze, but Mast was too immersed in his own unhappiness to respond more than feebly.

"Yeah. I guess so, too. Well, I'll let you know."


The Pistol is a 1959 novella written by James Jones. Compared to his two previously published novels, From Here to Eternity (1951) and Some Came Running (1957), it is modest to the point of self-effacement.

The Pistol gives us a sketch of life for a rifle company on Oahu in the aftermath of Pearl Harbor: stringing barbed wire, guarding beaches, winning and losing small fortunes at craps and poker.

Protagonist Richard Mast, a Pfc on orderly duty when the bombs begin to fall, decides to keep the pistol he was issued for this duty. It's a crime not to return the pistol and its holster, belt, and lanyard, but Mast convinces himself the weapon is his key to surviving in combat.  He knows there is a Japanese officer with a sword already preparing to grapple with him at some future place of rendezvous.

Mast makes a fetish of the pistol, living with it and sleeping with it every night.

Other members of his platoon crave the pistol for the same semi-abstract reasons as Mast.  In fact, most of the novel's action and humor flow from Mast trying to out-think men stronger and more implacable than himself as he struggles keep possession of his talisman.

At each turn in the story, Mast tries to erase the memory of his theft, and nearly succeeds in convincing himself he bought the pistol from a guy in another unit.

The pistol may not grant the same ecstasy as gold, but there is ecstasy to be found as a custodian.  Even temporarily.

16 March 2018

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