Joe remembers a summer spent camping and fishing in the mountains with his father. Joe is fifteen and is trying to tell his father that, for the first time, he wants to go fishing with a friend—Bill Harper—rather than his father. Joe decides to tell his father casually; his father agrees readily and offers his own fishing rod for Bill to use. Joes fathers fishing rod is particularly valuable to him as it was his fathers only luxury.
Fishing the next day, Joe and Bill lose his fathers rod in the water. Joe walks back to the campsite alone, thinking of having to tell his father about the loss of the rod. Joes parents have never had much money; however, they have always managed to feed the family well, between the garden his father keeps in the vacant lot next door and his mothers careful canning of foods. From this point of view, Joe thinks his family seems well off, yet they have always been a “failure” because his father cannot make any money. Joe knows his father will not have enough money to buy another rod.
Joe goes into the tent and tells his father quickly that they lost his rod. After a silence, his father puts his arm around Joe and tells him that they should not let the matter of the rod “spoil our last trip together.” Joe realizes sadly that his father sees that this will be their last trip together—next summer Joe will go to the mountains with the guys his age and his father will go with the other men.
Joe awakens lonelier than ever.
Joe, fully alone, now begins to reconsider complicated issues like going to war, as he can and must think about the war only for himself, without outside influences. Joe wonders why, when he was asked to go to war, he did not consider the consequences or the motivations of those who asked him to go. Joe considers the slipperiness of abstract words like “liberty,” “honor,” and “decency,” which can mean very different things to different people.
Men go to war not truly knowing what they are fighting for. Perhaps they are already happy with their small liberties, like walking with their girlfriend; the fight for a different sort of liberty has nothing to do with them. Joe wonders if the fight for liberty is really just a fight to foist Americas sense of liberty and honor on the rest of the world. What if parts of the world like their own liberty and honor? Joe longs for something concrete for which to go to war; that way, even if he lost everything else, he would know exactly what it is he won.
Joe muses that the army recruiters, unable to get people to sign up with vague talk about liberty, resorted to using the persuasion that women were endangered, being raped by the enemy. Joe does not consider this an “honest deal” in the end—ones life bargained for something better in return. Joe is even skeptical of the idealist stance—that ideals are worth fighting for, worth losing ones life for.
Joe is skeptical of ideals because they are not concrete and because dead men cannot talk and therefore confirm that an ideal truly was worth dying for. Joe pictures the millions of men who went out and died for democracy—right before their deaths, they were not thinking of democracy, but of their friends, their families, their wish to live. Joe knows this with conviction because he himself is “the nearest thing to a dead man on earth.” He would trade democracy, honor, independence, freedom, and decency for his life back, because “theres nothing noble about dying.” Joe warns an imaginary other not to go to war for the words of others, because death is painful and grotesque and because there is nothing cowardly about wanting to live.
Chapters ix and x mark the end of Book I as well as the first climax of the novel. It is in this section, entitled “The Dead,” that Joe manages to triumph over his encroaching insanity and develop convictions about his bodily condition and the more general practice of war. By the end of Chapter x it becomes clear to Joe that he has a role to play as the worlds first living dead man. He alone exists near to death, yet is alive enough to realize that giving up ones life is not worth anything, including abstract ideals. This message and the convictions behind it give Joe a sense of purpose that he has lacked.
Chapter ix consists of one of Joes last dream remembrances, this one of his last camping trip with his father. Like some of the other dream memories, this one is dominated by a sense of loss—Joe loses his fathers fishing rod, but he also loses the childhood rapport he and his father shared. But this dream memory also involves the beginnings of the political convictions Joe displays in Chapter x. The sections of Chapter ix that explain Joes familys financial status display dissatisfaction with the capitalist system and a nostalgia for a more pastoral, subsistence farming system. Under a system of subsistence pastoralism, Joes father would be a success, as he grows enough food for his family to eat quite well. Joes father is only a failure under the capitalist system that requires men to make surplus capital to purchase goods. Joes nostalgia for pastoralism also involves a preference for local identification—first with family, then possibly with community—over a national identity. This tendency then plays into Joes feelings about war voiced in Chapter x.
Joes convictions about war in Chapter x center around a deep skepticism regarding the motives of the undefined “they”—those who organized and called for the war, yet did not fight in it. Joes skepticism extends to language as well. He distrusts words without concrete referents, such as “house.” These abstract words can convey different meanings, and they ultimately offer inadequate substance when placed on the other end of a bargain with ones life. Thence comes Joes sense of having been cheated and manipulated. The form of Chapter x works in some of the same ways that a persuasive piece of writing or a speech would. Joe repeats many of his phrases for emphasis, even repeating words such as “democracy” and “liberty” so often as to sap them of all meaning—they simply become repetitive sounds. Joe also speaks periodically to a second person—imaginatively, another man being talked into going to war. But Joe also appears to address us here; the chapter works didactically, with the aim to teach.