Study Guide

Friends, Lovers, and Others in Johnny Got His Gun

By Dalton Trumbo

Friends, Lovers, and Others


Kareen is the girl Joe left behind. A war story would hardly be complete without one of those, right? Character-wise, we only get a glimpse of her.

With, Kareen, it's more about what function she has in Joe's life than about who she is as a person. On his last night before leaving for the army, Joe keeps reassuring her that he's not going to die in action, and that he's going to come back.

Kareen is here to show us another aspect of war: the lovers soldiers leave behind, and the potential life together that is lost when that soldier does not return (or when he returns in something like Joe's condition). Here's what Joe himself has to say about it:

Oh Kareen why do they have to have a war right now just when we find each other? Kareen we've got more important things than war. Us Kareen you and me in a house. I'll come home at night to you in my house your house our house. We'll have fat happy kids smart kids too. That's more important than a war. (3.40)

In this passage, we're supposed to get a sense that it's not just Joe's life that has been sacrificed in the name of war; it's also the life of this happy family that could have been.

Bill Harper

Bill Harper is Joe's childhood best friend from Shale City. He's a compassionate guy who does things like take Joe for drives when his dog gets hit by a car. He accidently loses Joe's father's expensive fishing rod, but the worst thing he does is steal Joe's girlfriend. We're told that he dies in the Battle of Belleau Wood in June 1918, a few months before Joe is wounded.

When Bill steals Joe's girlfriend, he seems to represent something like the imbalance of the world at war, and this imbalance keeps building: first Bill steals Joe's girlfriend; then he gets killed instead of maimed; then Joe remembers him losing the fishing rod that symbolizes the relationship between Joe and his father. What the heck, Bill?

Bill seems to be the one teaching Joe that life in unfair. In many ways, that's the most important lesson Joe needs to be taught, because he's about to experience it, firsthand, the really, really hard way. So Bill still definitely is a "friend" to Joe in this way.

Another way of reading Bill is that he is an integral part of the coming-of-age experience: sometimes things happen, and best friends drift apart. He could also be seen as a foil to Joe: he's one who was "lucky" enough to die.

Mike Birkman

Mike is Kareen's father. He's a tough old guy who worked in a coal mine, has been in prison, and hates pretty much everybody. Still, when it's Joe's last night before being sent off to war, he has no problem letting Joe sleep with his daughter; he even brings them breakfast in bed the next morning. Talk about an understanding parent. Anyway, Mike's tough-guy attitude is at odds with his behavior here, which says something about what Mike thinks will probably happen to Joe in the war.


Howie is the guy with whom Joe runs away to the desert when both of their girlfriends cheat on them with Glen Hogan. Joe kind of resents how Howie considers himself to be equal with Joe when it comes to success with women, because apparently Howie can never keep a girlfriend. Joe thinks he's a little better than that.


Diane is Joe's teenaged girlfriend who cheats on him first with Glen Hogan and then with Bill Harper. She's the reason Joe runs away to the desert with Howie.

Glen Hogan

Glen Hogan is pretty much the jock guy who steals Joe's girlfriend Diane in Shale City. He seems to steal away most of the girls in Shale City.


Jose does a stint at the bakery with Joe. He arrives as a homeless guy from the Midnight Mission, but he's a good worker, so when a job at the bakery opens up, Jody Simmons hires him. Jose tells the other workers about a wealthy girl in New York who is in love with him, and though none of the other men believe him, she turns out to be real.

Jose wants to work for a movie studio, which everyone thinks is impossible, but he lands a job at one simply by walking in and asking for it. He doesn't want to disrespect Jody by quitting when he was generous enough to give him a job in the first place, so he goes through this whole song and dance of knocking over a huge cart of pies in order to get fired. It's a moment of comic relief in a novel that isn't exactly bursting with belly laughs.

Jody Simmons

Jody is Joe's boss at the bakery in Los Angeles. He gives Joe the phone call when Joe's father dies, and he's the one Jose has to convince to fire him.

Pinky Carson

Pinky Carson is a guy that Joe and Jose work with at the bakery. It's his idea to have Jose knock over the pies. He's here pretty much for comic relief.


Ruby is the first girl Joe has sex with, when he's in eighth or ninth grade. Apparently, she's everyone's first because she doesn't laugh at their ineptitude. She's described as fat and Italian, and the guys aren't very nice to her even after she's slept with them. She eventually leaves town.

Bonnie Flannigan

Bonnie is a girl Joe meets in Los Angeles. She seems to "know everyone," if you catch our drift (especially considering that she appears in the chapter where Joe recounts his sexual exploits). Joe is upset that a girl like that could come from Shale City, which shows that Joe has a very idealized vision of his hometown, despite the fact that a few paragraphs earlier he was totally talking about the local brothel.

Bonnie has been married three times, despite her young age, and she claims that people constantly tell her that she looks like Evelyn Nesbit, a famous model of the period.

Stumpy Telsa

Stumpy Telsa is the madame who runs the brothel in Shale City. She's missing a leg. Hence her name Stumpy. Little does Joe know that he'll soon be "stumpy," himself.


Laurette is a prostitute Joe befriends at Stumpy Telsa's brothel. We don't mean "befriends" euphemistically: Joe never sleeps with her, because every time he sees her, he doesn't know how to make the next move (he's seventeen or eighteen during all this).

Laurette likes to talk about books. When Joe graduates from high school, she sends him a pair of gold cufflinks with engraved Ls, but when Joe goes to find her, Stumpy Telsa informs him that she's gone to Estes Park for the summer. Joe moves to Los Angeles before the fall and never sees her again.


Lucky is an American prostitute at a brothel in Paris. She has a young son in Long Island whom she's raising to be a polo player, and she lived through the San Francisco earthquake of 1906. She represents the America the soldiers left behind and she helps, ahem, alleviate their homesickness. (See the "Names" section under "Characterization" for more on her.)

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