The Gallery by John Horne BurnsThe Gallery belongs in that category of war novel where someone is disillusioned with what they had to go through for their country. You know the canon, books like All Quiet on the Western Front and The Red Badge of Courage... maybe you had to read them for school and ended up liking them anyway. This is definitely one of those books, but with a twist. The Gallery goes places I’ve never actually read about in a war novel that was published so soon after the war. It skips most of the battle talk and instead focuses tightly on a few places, and a few people -- stories you probably wouldn’t be reading in a classroom because of their subject matter and because of the bitingly cynical tone Burns takes when writing about his own country. In 1947, when this book was released, it was about as easy as it is today to criticize the policies of America when it comes to war, and about as difficult to have your voice heard if you don’t agree with what is going on in your government. Despite all of this, Burns managed to both mock American policy and to show parts of World War II that would probably not make it into a PBS documentary.
The book is split up into two types of chapters: “Promenades” and “Portraits." The Promenade chapters take you on a tour-book type stroll around several cities the author himself was stationed at during the war, including Casablanca, Algiers, and Naples. What comes through here is the author’s love of the area he’s writing about, a true admiration of the people and their culture. These chapters, the ones that don’t focus so much on America, are the ones with the most sincerity and least amount of bitterness. Burns himself actually moved to Italy after the war was over.
The Portrait chapters were very intriguing, all taking place in one area in Naples, the Galleria Umberto Primo, an indoor arcade where service men gathered to go to bars, eat at blackmarket restaurants, and find some comfort. Each Portrait chapter focused on a different person, following them through their experiences, and often highlighting a struggle that doesn’t take place on the battlefield. In the chapter “Louella," a thirty-nine year old Red Cross volunteer uses the war as a social occasion, voicing a universal vapidity of those who think they’re superior:
That was one of Louella’s major faults, that she was more sensitive to situations than they demanded. She always tried to descend to other people’s levels instead of insisting that they meet her on her own. It was an exhausting philosophy of life, but she had an inkling that, after she’d left them, people gave vent to an admiration and a veneration they never dared show to her face.
Another clever portrait is that of “Father Donovan and Chaplain Bascom," a priest and a Baptist minister who spend more time trying to convert each other than in comforting those they are supposed to be helping. My other favorites were “Momma," a narrative in which Burn’s slowly reveals what goes on in one bar in the Galleria -- through the eyes of it’s patroness. You don’t realize he’s writing about a gay bar until about halfway through the story. “Queen Penicillin” takes us to another facet of the war, a VD clinic where the main character has to get a penicillin shot every three hours for about two weeks when he contracts syphilis.
Through both the promenades and the portraits, Burns shows a picture of what could be any war at any time. Perhaps it’s the universality of the themes that makes this book an excellent read, or maybe it’s just the quality of the writing, but either way I think The Gallery should be on a lot of required reading lists.
The Gallery by John Horne Burns
New York Review of Books