Joe Bonham wakes up to the sound of a telephone ringing. How many books and movies begin with the main character waking up? Answer: a lot. But this one is kind of weird: it seems like Joe's father has died, but this turns out to be just a dream.
Oh, if only it weren't.
Joe is totally in a military hospital—or at least, he assumes he is. He can't really tell, because he's completely covered in bandages, and we mean all-out mummy-style, including his head. And as if things didn't already suck enough, our hero realizes that he is deaf.
After an initial freak-out, Joe slips in and out of consciousness. He has a lot of dreams, most of which involve his childhood in Colorado. He also remembers moving with his family to Los Angeles, where he first heard talk about the war. Which war? World War I.
Joe feels people working on him, and he realizes that—holy crap—his left arm has been amputated. It's just gone. This prompts a memory of Kareen, Joe's girlfriend: he remembers holding her in his arms on the day he left.
Hold up, Joe: did you say your left arm was amputated? Sorry, buddy. It turns out both your arms are gone.
Our hero falls out of consciousness again and thinks about the time in high school when he and his friend Howie ran away to work in the Utah desert after their girlfriends cheated on them with the same guy. Joe returns home to find that his ex is actually cheating on him with his best friend. Joe just never gets a break, does he?
Joe wonders why his head feels so heavy compared to his body. Suddenly, he gets the memo: both of his legs have been cut off. All right, can it get any worse?
It totally can. Joe tries to scream but quickly learns that he has no mouth. Concentrating, he tries to figure out what is left of his face. Well, there's a hole from his throat that extends to his forehead, so he has no eyes, no jaw, and no nose; he's breathing through a tracheotomy tube in his throat.
Yeah, we can't even... For once, we at Shmoop are speechless.
... Now that we've recovered (a little), we'll move on. So... In another dream, Joe remembers a guy at the bakery he worked at named Jose. There are shenanigans.
Awake, Joe considers his condition. He's wearing a mask to hide his face, and there is a hole in his side that doesn't seem to be healing. As he loses consciousness again, Joe imagines a rat clawing at the hole and eating bits of him, which evokes the memory of a rat eating the face of a dead Prussian officer.
How are you doing, Shmoopers? If you've made it this far, you can make it through anything.
So, when the nurse comes in to re-dress his wounds, Joe realizes that the whole rat-eating-his-insides thing was a dream—but he wonders how he will be able to distinguish waking from dreaming from now on. He starts to have a dream about the last fishing trip he took with his father.
Joe does a lot of thinking (he can't do a whole lot else). He thinks about war and the words people use to get other people excited about it. He reasons that the dead don't ever get to speak and tell the world how they feel about dying for a concept like liberty. Joe thinks he's the closest thing to a speaking dead man there is, and he says that there is "nothing noble about dying" (10.24).
Joe eventually decides that he needs to figure out a way of reckoning time, so he uses the number of times the nurse comes in between the times she changes his sheets in order to figure when sunrise will be. He is able to measure an entire year this way, and he learns how to tell his nurses apart. Talk about tedium.
Joe assumes that he's in an English hospital because he would have been found in with an English regiment. There would be no way of identifying him as American, anyway, since there was so little left of him.
He remembers Lazarus, a German soldier whose body Joe's regiment kept trying to bury—but whose grave kept getting hit by shells so that he was always blown back up above ground. Think that's disturbing? Get a load of this: eventually a young Englishman new to the war accidentally fell arm-deep—literally, folks—into Lazarus's rotting corpse and went insane.
We don't blame him.
Two more years pass, and one day, Joe feels a group of people come into his room. He feels them pin a medal to his shirt. Joe gets angry at this and tries to dislodge his mask so that they can see what they have made him into.
When these people leave, Joe gets the idea from feeling the vibrations of their feet to try communicating through Morse code: he can try to tap SOS with his head, he thinks. His nurse can't figure out what he wants, but he persists, and after a while, she guesses that Joe is sexually frustrated. Well, that's one guess.
Eventually, the doctor starts to drug Joe up with morphine to make him stop tapping, and Joe starts having a hallucination about playing a trippy blackjack game with Jesus Christ himself on the day he left for the war.
One day, a new nurse comes into Joe's room and traces out the letters "MERRY CHRISTMAS" on his chest. Suddenly, there is hope.
The new nurse tries hard to figure Joe out, and eventually she gets it. She gets the doctor, who comes in comes and taps in Morse code in Joe's forehead "WHAT DO YOU WANT." This stumps Joe, because he doesn't know what he wants that they can actually give him. He starts to tap that he wants to get out of the hospital so that he can be seen and serve as an example of what war looks like.
The doctor leaves, comes back, and taps out "WHAT YOU ASK IS AGAINST REGULATIONS WHO ARE YOU." Talk about an anti-climax. Joe realizes that there is no hope for him and starts begging to be let out. He feels the doctor inject him with more morphine.
The book ends with Joe's assertion that the future will be bleak and war-torn unless people point the guns at those who orchestrate wars instead of at each other.