23. U.S.A.: 1919 by John Dos Passos

As per usual, the fact that this is a sequel means that there's a good chance this review contains a ton of spoilers. -M.R.

Year Published: 1932
Pages: 413
First Sentence:
Oh the infantree the infantree
With the dirt behind their ears.
Rating: 2/3 (meh)

I'm a bit surprised that anyone manages to get past the second book of a trilogy at all. So often, second books are just sort of there, not as impressive as either the introduction or the conclusion. John Dos Passos' second book in the U.S.A. trilogy, 1919, suffers from this problem. It was at least good enough to keep me interested in the third book, but not much better than that.

And of course, as is typical when I review multiple books in a trilogy or series, expect some spoilers ahead.

So, 1919 has the same format as The 42nd Parallel, which is to say there are four modes/formats of storytelling: "Camera Eyes," "Newsreels," prose poem historical character profiles, and narratives about several characters. There still isn't a specific plot, more a circling of characters around the First World War. For a book about the U.S.A., a surprising majority of this one is set in France and a handful of other European locations.

The crop of characters in this book is new, though adjacent to those from the first book:
  • Joe Williams (brother to Janey Williams), a sailor who has deserted the Navy and is generally adrift in all sorts of ways, both literal and metaphorical. The character most prone to high levels of racism.
  • Richard Ellsworth Savage, originally from Oak Park, Illinois and other than that I read probably a hundred pages about this character and never got a good handle on him. He likes poetry and I was pretty sure he was gay but later events in the novel made me doubt that assessment.
  • Eveline Hutchins (friend of Eleanor Stoddard), a Chicago native who seems to drift around either taking care of family members or trying out various business ventures. Her presence recontextualizes the character of Eleanor in interesting ways, to the point where it's hard to be sure which of them is the frivolous one, because they each see each other that way but not, of course, themselves.
  • "Daughter" Anne Elizabeth Trent, a Texas belle who gets treated very badly by this book. She dabbles briefly in the labour movement then ends up in France with literally everyone else, Dick Savage gets her pregnant, and then she dies in a plane crash. The desperation of being a woman, ladies and gentlemen.
  • Ben Compton, a Jewish boy from Brooklyn who manages to squander (?) all his promise by getting involved in the labour movement and then promptly thrown in jail.

In case it's not obvious, I had a really hard time with the characters this time, which sucks because the whole novel depends on the reader's interest in these characters, even if they aren't likeable. Dick Savage's sections, in particular, felt endless. And Joe Williams' racism makes it even more noticeable that although this novel and trilogy purport to be about the whole American experience, the characters are almost exclusively WASPs.

Still, there's something special enough going on here that I want to read the final book. The second to last prose poem section, "Paul Bunyan," is a total gut punch. It's about Wesley Everest, wobbly, WWI veteran, and lynching victim. I have a feeling that this is intended to set the tone for the third and final book, The Big Money.

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