The 15-Minute Pulitzer
Major Victor Joppolo’s obsession with obtaining a bell for the war-torn Sicilian town of Adano in John Hersey’s 1945 Pulitzer Prize win, Bell for Adano, had infected me completely by page 21 of this 269 page novel. Here are three reasons why: 1) Joppolo is immediately a likeable character, depicted in very likeable prose. 2) The injustice of a 700-year-old bell being melted down to make rifle barrels intended to be discharged in the name of Benito Mussolini set off ringing alarms of indignation within me. 3) The incredibly charming conversation Joppolo and three of the citizens of Adano have concerning what the former bell provided for Adano and what Adano now needs was invigorating. Major Joppolo’s infectious obsession went beyond the experience of the book for me. It made me begin to consider how I might, in my private life, obtain a “bell” of my own. This is where the grandfather clock comes in. By page 21 I not only was enjoying the story, I was having a vision of ensconcing a handsome piece of furniture in a place of dignity within my home that could then ring, toll, even clamor out the hours and half hours all day every day, replacing the labor intensive qualities of my Chinese gong and megaphone, and the infuriating quality of my alarm clock, with a gentle and automated regularity akin to the journey of the Apollonic golden sun.
Going back to the book.
I had read Bell for Adano before, as a youngster. I did not know then that it had won a Pulitzer. It just happened to be in a box of my father’s old books. The tragedy of the novel’s story blind-sided me then, a little like the death of Steve McQueen in Tom Horn (okay nothing quite as bad as that, but close). This time around I had a much more balanced experience of suffering emotional engagement with Joppolo, the town of Adano, and the U.S. Army in tandem with amusement at the circuitous route Major Victor Joppolo’s doom takes and the characters (even caricatures) involved in the process.
As an adult I could see that the story isn’t really all that tragic. Joppolo did good work in Adano, work that would long outlive any infamy he achieved with the U.S. Army, and work that set the stage for further ventures and success in his life during other sweeps of life’s pendulum, clapper, whatever. Bell for Adano, the book, could be said to have done much the same for Hersey himself. It was only Hersey’s third novel and it set the stage for much more to come. Hersey continued to write and teach (at Yale, no less) and left an active legacy much broader than a single, though exceptional, novel. It also gave him an opportunity to mature and improve. I mean, one could hope that in his later work he might have gotten rid of some of the political sentimentality and pedantic quality of his writing while perhaps keeping the adept touches given to his characters and the sense of humor that “chimes” so truly, regulating the difficulties presented in the novel with every turning page. Seriously, his tone is so consistent and on point it’s as if he were writing with a metronome in the background. Or perhaps it was just a family heirloom in the form of a grandfather clock helping him with the pacing of his prose and inspiring images of a valued town bell. Shouldn’t every person have such a thing to pass on to posterity … There’s that obsession again. How shall I cope? Can anyone recommend an app for this?