After reading and greatly enjoying the first volume (The 42nd Parallel) in Dos Passos' acclaimed "USA trilogy", I quickly moved on to this next volume. Picking up where that one left off, it takes the reader from America's entry in World War I through the end of the war. As with "The 42nd Parallel", this is done by following several characters through the war era, interspersed with Dos Passos' experiment modernist sequences "The Camera Eye" and "Newsreel." (These are kind of abstract prose collages or montages comprised of headlines, snatched phrases of songs, news clippings, and random phrases -- presumably intended to convey some of the mood and seeming frenetic pace of the time. At the time they might have seemed startling and striking, however to me they muddy up what is already a wide-ranging and complex narrative.) There are also sketches of major figures, such as Woodrow Wilson, Teddy Roosevelt, Joe Hill, J.P. Morgan, and the Unknown Soldier, which are miniature masterpieces of biography.
Unfortunately, while that first book was a revelation, I found this one exceedingly tedious. Dos Passos' antiwar sentiment is so strong and vociferous throughout the book that it lacks the range of the first book and settles into a more or less repetitive rut. While it's certainly instructive to see how almost a century ago, a nation could be easily seduced by manufactured patriotism, Dos Passos' take is so decidedly ideological that he masks some of the complexities of the situation. His bitter cynicism about it all -- which, to be fair, was hard won through his ambulance duty on the Western Front -- results in a very negative novel, in which all relationships are a failure, all promises broken, all politics corrupt, and even those who mean well are rendered ineffective by larger forces.
The book introduces a new set of characters, including a sailor, a poet, a Jewish radical, a small-town Texas woman, and a preacher's daughter. However, for some reason, their tales aren't nearly as compelling as those in "The 42nd Parallel." While this may be because they are overshadowed by the war, it doesn't help that many characters from that earlier book turn up in France to steal a good deal of the narrative thunder. In any event, what was exciting about the first book is decidedly less so here, and I don't think I'll move on to complete the trilogy -- at least not any time soon.