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Saturday, 8 March 2008

Tough Guys

James Jones and daughter Kaylie Jones, right

James Jones Flips

By Richard Carreño

During my university-days in Paris, in the late 1960's, I chased literary ghosts. There was nothing special about this -- every Yank student, to varying degrees, was interested the footprints of ex-pats Hemingway and Fitzgerald, who forged much their literary ouevre on Paris' Left Bank (Hemingway) and Right Bank (Fitzgerald).

Some of my ghosts were not quite so dead -- strictly speaking, that is -- as the 'Lost Generation.' I remember meeting Wicked Witch Mary McCarthy and Fairy Godmother Janet Flanner (Genet), both of The New Yorker, after a panel discussion one particularly dreary night. I even spent some time with Pierre Salinger, President Kennedy's former press secretary, former (appointed) U.S. senator from California, and, then, at that time, a Paris-based journalist. (He was also a trustee of the American University in Paris, the university I attended, and, thus, occasioning my acquaintance with him).

Of course, I searched other literary literary -- and cinematic -- lights, as well. After all, this was the time of the Nouvelle Vague. Jean-Luc Godard was always in my sights.

I was not very interested in later-day arrivals to Paris. I suppose there must have been dozens of important Yank writers in Paris at the time. (Then, as now, most mid-20th century writers I followed either stayed put, or reached out to English -- and English language -- roots).

The exception was James Jones, author of From Here to Eternity. And not much of an exception, at that. Like Mailer, Jones was one of those butch, World War II-era authors who, I thought, believed more in macho swagger than in stylised manners, a literary form that had, for me, greater appeal. But I knew Jones. I mean, I knew he lived in Paris. I knew what he looked like. A tough mug like his was hard to miss.

And I didn't.

I mention my brief encounter with Jones now because, just recently, I finished reading a highly-autobiographical novel, A Soldier's Daughter Never Cries, about Jones and his life during that period in Paris, written by his daughter Kaylie Jones. It fills in some holes. Nothing big. Just niceties that put a finish on the subject.

Why, for example, was Jones, on that day, as I was walking from the Right to the Left Bank via the Ile de la Cite, at the brasserie where I found him playing pinball? Well, it turns out that Jones and his family lived nearby on the rue des Deux Ponts, and that this brasserie was his local. Moreover, like alot of us, he was a flipper (pinball) aficionado.

'He sat me on a barstool in front of the pinball machine and slipped two francs into the slot,' Kaylie Jones writes about her 'father.' "You're getting pretty good at this," he said, standing behind me with a hand on my shoulder. "Pretty soon you'll be beating your old man."
"Oh, no." I was concentrating on the ball.

The bar area was filled with workers who were stopping in a for drink on their way home. Most of them lived on the island and knew my father. They discussed their different jobs and the weather and the government with him. They liked him, I thought, because they considered him their own, personal American. And because his kids spoke French without accents and played in the street with their kids.

He showed me a new trick: how to capture the ball with the flipper and hold it so I could aim my shot.'

Attaboy boy, James!

Actually, Jones might have been doing exactly that on the afternoon when I saw him.

'Pleased to see you Mr Jones,' I said, during a break between flips. 'I'm a great fan.'

Jones smiled and took my hand in his hammy paw.

I watched him play for a minute, or two more.

I reckoned that he was OK, after all.