Friday, June 26, 2015

Friday’s Forgotten Book: Soldier in the Rain


Solider in the Rain is a 1960 novel by William Goldman about a simple army sergeant on a base in the American south, his two far more educated buddies, and one young local girl.

On the surface, the story would seem to be a comic novel, but there is a lot more heart to it than that label would give it.

Supply Sgt. Eustis Clay has ambitions to be rich and famous when he gets out of the army. His problem is that he has no idea how to go about it. But that does not stop him from generating all sorts of ideas and weighing the possibilities. One line of work he considers is broom balancing – the end of the handle on his palm and the brush in the air – something he does better than anyone and practices when he has nothing to do while on duty in his supply office. He abandons the idea when he cannot find a way of turning his pastime into a money-making business. Eustis fancies himself a songwriter and believes his future may lie there, even though his songs are hilariously bad.

Eustis sounds too dim to root for, but he has some redeeming qualities. He overcame a childhood tragedy, loves his dog, is a loyal friend, is considerate to the local girls, and is consistently cheerful.

He looks up to his 40ish friend, Master Sgt. Maxwell Slaughter, a base wheeler-dealer. Eustis considers Maxwell his mentor. At first, Maxwell seems to tolerate Eustis' buffoonery in order to use him to procure goods from the supply office which Maxwell trades for items like an air conditioner for his office and his own personal vending machine. As the story progresses, Goldman shows the supremely confident Maxwell is a man with deep doubts and fears, which Maxwell only reveals to his friend, Eustis.

In his own naïve way, Eustis tries to help Maxwell by setting him up on a date with a local beauty named Bobby Jo Pepperdine, who hangs around the base and has had many intimate boyfriends despite being only 14 years old.

Maxwell, a gentleman and a guy with a lot of problems, develops a platonic rapport with Bobby Jo, which makes for some loopy, yet touching scenes.

Another buddy is Private Jerry Meltzer, an Ivy League graduate, drafted during the Korean War, who, during the story learns to drink with Eustis, celebrates the end of the Korean conflict and his discharge from the army.

In one of the best scenes in the book, Jerry invites Eustis, Maxwell, and Bobby Jo to a party at a hotel in town hosted by his overbearing mother and snotty fiancée who have traveled south to get Jerry and bring him back to New York. Goldman’s excellent ear for dialogue is evident in this scene. The six characters in the hotel suite have such unique voices that Goldman barely needed to identify the speakers.

Jerry, like Bobby Jo, is headed for a disappointing future and neither Eustis nor Maxwell can help them. In fact, they are all headed for disappointing futures, and that sense of ultimate sadness makes the book something far more than just a humorous tale of army life.

Solider in the Rain, was the then 29-year-old Goldman’s third novel, written a few years after he himself was discharged from the army. His style is lean and his portrayal of the hot, dusty base and the variety of people associated with it is well worth the read.

Shortly after its publication, Blake Edwards, the man behind the Pink Panther movies, turned the book into a screenplay and produced it as a film starring the surprisingly excellent Steve McQueen as Eustis Clay, the perfectly cast Jackie Gleason as Maxwell Slaughter, and Tuesday Weld as Bobby Jo.
Goldman went on to write Marathon Man and the screenplays for “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid” and “All the President’s Men" and much more. 

6 comments:

  1. Can't remember if I've done an FFB on this one, but I know I did an "Overlooked Movies" post on the screen version. Loved 'em both.

    ReplyDelete
  2. Bill – Thanks for reading the post. – Yes, both are terrific. Saw the movie years ago, and again recently. Just read the book for the first time. – I plan to do a companion piece on the movie for Todd Mason’s next Overlooked.

    ReplyDelete
  3. I do like the sound of this one, not that I'm in need of any more books though, cheers.....I think!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Col – Goldman has a wonderful writing style. This would be a good one to add to the TBR pile. – Thanks for visiting.

      Delete
  4. I read this a long while ago, shortly after the paperback became available, and liked it. I haven't seen the film, but with that cast, I should like to.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. R.K. – Thanks for reading the post. The movie rarely shows, but I believe it is available on DVD. McQueen and Gleason work well together.

      Delete