May is a green month, the emerald month, the month of spring growth, the month of becoming. James Jones' novel, The Merry Month of May, is a timepiece set in the calendar events of May, 1968, a time of youthful exuberance and social change, with the politics of sex and violence played out against the student revolt in Paris, France during that tumultuous year.
It is a complicated novel, a novel of spiritual evolution, filled to the brim with lush literary and philosophical nuances that you might not grasp at first reading, unless you have also read Steven R. Carter's excellent study, James Jones: An American Literary Orientalist Master. I discussed this a couple of months ago in a blog on the trinity in literature.
Last week novelist Bill Crider selected James Jones' A Touch of Danger for his Forgotten Book Friday review (link). A fine review, but you should know that it too is structured in accord with James Jones' spiritual ideas of the transcendent. The protagonist, Lobo, is a lone wolf, an animal man who, at age fifty, is struggling with his long-denied connections to the rest of humanity.
In the scene where Lobo meets the murderer, it is wolf meeting wolf, despite the civilized trappings which disguise them. The clues are in the wording of the descriptions.
The first edition of A Touch of Danger provided a detailed map of the island on the frontispiece. The epigraph is a quote of Achilles from Homer's Iliad, wishing that gall would vanish from men's minds. Which is to say, ego.
Jones explained his philosophy to Carter. He saw the spiritual evolution of man as going from animal man to mental man to spiritual man, with a diminishing of ego at each stage. You can also think of this trinity as id-dominated, ego-dominated, and spiritually-dominated. Or, as I detailed in an earlier blog, in numerous other ways. These things are universals and can be seen in all of the author's many books including his justly famous war trilogy, From Here to Eternity, The Thin Red Line, and Whistle.
In his novels, Jones was more interested in the big issues, the human universals, than in the local politics of the day. Frank McShane, in his excellent biography of Jones, says that he was rereading Joseph Conrad's The Nigger of the Narcissus during the writing of Whistle. I suspect that Conrad's novel was also in part the inspiration for the narcissistic character of Samantha in The Merry Month of May. It is clear that he was not a racist, yet he used her race as a symbol of the Other, as Conrad did originally.
I'd also like to recommend Kaylie Jones' Lies My Mother Never Told Me: A Memoir. Long an accomplished author herself, in this book she discusses her memories of the literary figures which passed through her father's house.