“I just can’t put my finger on what is wrong with this story,” growls the thick, knotty man teaching the course in creative writing. “Maybe to give it some tension you should have the husband grieving over his dead wife but also guilt-ridden about an affair with another woman. Right now this sounds less like a story than a Nixon poll on the perfect American family.”
“But my husband wouldn’t do such a thing,” the student objects to James Jones, writer in residence at Miami’s two-year-old Florida International University. His pupil’s response draws a resigned sigh. Perhaps nine out of his class of 50, Jones guesses, will survive the grueling battle to become writers.
After living 16 years in Paris, Jones returned to the U.S. last summer to teach and to finish the last book, Whistle, of a wartime trilogy that began with his distinguished best-seller, From Here to Eternity. “The thing I like about teaching,” explains Jones, “is that it makes you part of a community. Outside of New York, writers are not part of the community in America unless they have another function.”
The author, whose novel The Merry Month of May was inspired by his experiences in the French student uprising in 1968, insists that “the United States is where the cultural revolution is happening.” Florida may not be everybody’s idea of a strategic barricade, but the Sunshine State probably has more meaning for Jones than any American locale save his native Robinson, Ill. It was while working on a fishing boat in the Florida Keys that Jones reworked From Here to Eternity, based on his years as a regular in the pre-World War II Army. (The second volume of his trilogy, The Thin Red Line, was drawn from his combat experience on Guadalcanal.)
Settled into a Key Biscayne split-level with a screened-in pool, Jones, 53, and his handsome blond wife, Gloria, are more than an ocean away from Paris. There they occupied a 16th century house on the lie Saint-Louis which they updated with synthetic leopard-covered bathroom walls and a bar that was once the pulpit of a Gothic church. The spaghetti soirees the Joneses gave every Sunday were a happy fixture in the lives of fellow American writers and journalists residing in Paris.
The feast has proved to be a moveable one. Old friends have tracked the Joneses to their new home. Novelists Irwin Shaw and Willie Morris and lyricist-librettist Betty Comden have joined Jones in the classroom for guest lectures. The likes of Lillian Hellman and William Styron have limited themselves to the sunny amenities of their hosts’ house. Despite the friendly faces, Gloria seems dubious about the move. “I don’t know about this place,” she admits bluntly. “I’m not such a great athlete with the tennis and the swimming.” Her husband, though his dream of taking the Illinois Golden Gloves title was dashed in adolescence, is by contrast an ardent jock. The author of a novel built around scuba diving—Go to the Widow-Maker—he plunges into the blue Atlantic as often as his twice-a-week classes and his own writing allow. (He recently completed the text for an illustrated book, tentatively titled WWII: A Personal Narrative, which will be published in August.)
Upon his arrival in Miami, Jones had high hopes of encountering and developing Latin writers “who could talk about the Cuban experience in Miami…So far no one has done this.” Instead the students who enrolled for his course include a professional gambler, several housewives, a sheet-metal worker and a former newspaper reporter. “Some of the kids are so violently antiestablishment that they take unfair advantage of the villains in their stories with their choice of adjectives and verbs,” observes Jones. “I tell them, ‘Show me a sympathetic insurance man.’ A lot of the new writing is so moralistic that there is not enough celebration of life in it.” Jones likes to draw on his own adventures to put across a point. He tells a tale from his bachelorhood—prolonged until 1957—involving a girlfriend who bolted his apartment but left all her clothes behind. “She just vanished,” Jones recounts, flicking his cigar ash on the floor. “The look of her nightgown, the smell of her body…these are details that should be in a story.” A student stops chewing her gum just long enough to exclaim, “Imagine what she went through without her clothes!”
Says Jones: “I’ve learned telling students something once doesn’t mean much. You have to tell them the same thing again and again in a different context, so the overall meaning will sink in.” Apparently FIU students want to hear what Jones has to say, even more than once. His contract runs for a year. But already students and members of the Miami community are urging him to stay on for at least one more.