At 631 pages, covering three consecutive days on an air force base during WWII, and rife with racial tension, James Gould Cozzens’s 1949 Pulitzer win, Guard of Honor, is much more of a slow boil than that description may seem. A couple of the ways Cozzens slows down his boil is by setting the action on a training base in Central Florida, so there is no real enemy fire, and by focusing his energies not so much on the external happenings as on the internal workings and ironies of a handful of men and women placed before the backdrop of a war that was and has remained a significant cultural touchstone for readers.
Okay, so we’ve gotten away from actual fighting and anything really happening, but what about the racial tension? Honestly, it doesn’t play as significant of a role as it begins to seem it might close to the beginning of the book. We see situations build for a few hundred pages and then fizzle (broadly historically accurate by the way; Cozzens’s readers in ’49 were going to have to wait over a decade for things stirred up during WWII to come to a head in America) and then realize Cozzens’s book is more concerned with individual mortality and imperfections than broad social movements.
All of this “slow boil” effect seems to find its root in Cozzens’s own secluded and hermit-like personality. In person he was known to be opinionated with a hard bend towards conservatism, but in his writing he seems to adopt a strict aloofness toward sentimentality and clear-cut ideologies. Perhaps Guard of Honor can be best summed up by Cozzens’s own words, “I have no theme except that people get a very raw deal from life.” Frankly, I find that a bit dispiriting, and yet, refreshingly straightforward, too … right?