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But, true to form, Trumbo manages to bring it all to an upbeat conclusion.In the visionary final section, an uneasy combination of the idealistic and the grotesque, Joe succeeds in communicating his wishes to the doctors: he taps Morse code into his pillow with his head and informs them that he wishes to be displayed to the world, like a circus freak, as a warning against war.His predilection for a certain kind of freewheeling bombast often led him to take up radical stances he couldn’t maintain.
In the mid-1940s, Dalton Trumbo was a screenwriter near the top of his lucrative but precarious line of work: fast, prolific and a consummate professional, he usually wrote at night, often in the bath, fuelled by large doses of Benzedrine.
He was also a prominent and outspoken member of the Hollywood Communist Party.
He is unable to separate the present from his hallucinations of the past: work and love in Los Angeles, his upbringing in Colorado.
Trumbo cleverly writes the reader into Joe’s head by using various cinematic techniques – flashbacks, montage, fade-ins and fade-outs.
Trumbo’s career recovered and he paid off his debts by working on big-budget projects like (1977), Bruce Cook’s genial and thorough biography, suggests that the life he designed for himself ‘rivals, and really surpasses any literary work he has undertaken’. His father was a gentle, bookish, bee-keeping shop clerk who suffered from pernicious anaemia – a sympathetic colleague at Benge’s Shoe Store described him as ‘a loser, a real loser’.
(Both Colorado and his unsuccessful father feature regularly in Trumbo’s fiction.) His mother was a strong-minded Christian Scientist, the daughter of a famous sheriff and tracker.However, it came back into fashion (and print) during the Korean War and again at the time of Vietnam, when it had a considerable impact.It has been an influential cult novel: the Beats imitated its breathless style; Bob Dylan’s ‘Masters of War’ (1963) is clearly based on the tub-thumping final chapter.The history of the book’s reception is more interesting than the book itself.Because it was serialised in the New York , Trumbo was wrongly accused of writing it at the prompting of his Stalinist comrades – as a justification for the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact.After a dimly remembered explosion in a dugout on the Western Front, Joe Bonham, the soldier in Trumbo’s novel, lies in a similar condition in an unknown hospital.The nurses’ hands, the vibrations caused by people walking around the ward, the pain of the sheets against his wounds are his only contact with the outside world.Trumbo relies on sledgehammer irony: ‘I used to be a consumer,’ Joe explains at one point, ‘I’ve consumed more shrapnel and gunpowder than any living man.’ He prefers grandiose gestures and Biblical incantations to psychological or practical plausibility: although Joe is an amateur radio enthusiast, it takes him more than two years to hit on the idea of Morse code as a way of communicating.And when he finally breaks through, he taps out page after page, affirming the inevitable triumph of the human spirit.Trumbo Snr lost his job at Benge’s and fell terminally ill in 1925; the family moved to Los Angeles and young Dalton – neighbours remembered a ‘busy-assed guy, wound up like an eight-day clock …always noisy and talkative’ – was pulled out of college to support his family.