Text by Michael Mullen, Professor of English, Vincennes University
The plot of The Pistol, published in January of 1959, is simple. As the novella opens, on 7 December 1941, Pfc. Richard Mast is in possession of a pistol he has been assigned for guard duty. In the confusion of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, the pistol is overlooked. Mast becomes obsessed with the pistol, sees it as a symbol of salvation against an imaginary Japanese officer wielding a Samurai saber, and finally convinces himself that the weapon is rightfully his. Other men in the company try to force Mast to give up the pistol, by threatening him, offering to buy it, or trying to steal it, but Mast keeps possession until supply clerk Musso shows up with the original requisition slip Mast had signed and reclaims the gun. The book ends with Mast "staring at the picture of his Japanese major, who would someday come for him."
Jones's editor, Burroughs Mitchell, believed that the criticism heaped on Some Came Running gave Jones the impetus to write The Pistol and said that Jones "set out quite deliberately to write a short book and to write it in exemplary prose. When he gave me the finished manuscript he urged me to look carefully for any error in the use of language. I do not remember finding any. With that good small book, The Pistol, Jones made his only response to the critics." Whether or not Jones wrote The Pistol simply as a reaction to the critical reception of his previous novel, it was instrumental in giving his battered reputation a much-needed boost, as William Hogan's review, "James Jones Writes a Beauty of a Novella," in the San Francisco Chronicle suggests:
The Pistol is remarkable in that it shows that Jones, who has been regarded as a kind of Tom Wolfe of the Army life, can write a succesful, disciplined, polished jewel of a story if he wants to. After last year's fiasco, the cluttered and non-stop Some Came Running, Jones may have written this to prove to himself, as much as anyone else, that he can use the language wisely, beautifully and economically. The Pistol does prove this. It gives Jones, once again, the status of a promising young novelist.