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"OK, Joe!" the American lieutenant calls out to his driver. He hops into his jeep and heads out through French countryside just liberated from the Nazis. With him is the narrator of this novel, Louis, a Frenchman engaged by the American Army as an interpreter. Louis serves a group of American officers charged with bringing GIs to account for crimes?including rape and murder?against French citizens. The friendly banter of the American soldiers and the beautiful Breton landscape stand in contrast to Louis's task and his growing awareness of the
"OK, Joe!" the American lieutenant calls out to his driver. He hops into his jeep and heads out through French countryside just liberated from the Nazis. With him is the narrator of this novel, Louis, a Frenchman engaged by the American Army as an interpreter. Louis serves a group of American officers charged with bringing GIs to account for crimes—including rape and murder—against French citizens. The friendly banter of the American soldiers and the beautiful Breton landscape stand in contrast to Louis's task and his growing awareness of the moral failings of the Americans sent to liberate France. For not only must Louis translate the accounts of horrific crimes, he comes to realize that the accused men are almost all African American.
Based on diaries that the author kept during his service as a translator for the U.S. Army in the aftermath of D-Day, OK, Joe follows Louis and the Americans as they negotiate with witnesses, investigate the crimes, and stage the courts-martial. Guilloux has an uncanny ear for the snappy speech of the GIs and a tenderness for the young, unworldly men with whom he spends his days, and, in evocative vignettes and dialogues, he sketches the complex intersection of hope and disillusionment that prevailed after the war. Although the American presence in France has been romanticized in countless books and movies, OK, Joe offers something exceedingly rare: a penetrating French perspective on post-D-Day GI culture, a chronicle of trenchant racism and lost ideals.
As soon as he entered my office, the older one asked me if I was really
the mayor's interpreter. When I answered yes, the lieutenants introduced
"Lieutenant Stone ..."
I asked them to sit down. They refused. Lieutenant Stone asked if I was
the same person who had spoken with one of their men at the entrance to
the girls' school the night before.
He got specific: "With Bill?"
Yes. I was the one. With Bill Cormier, yes.
"OK. According to Bill, it seems you don't have much to do at the city
That was true too. In fact, I had nothing to do.
"In that case, perhaps you could do us a big favor."
They were about to go out on a case and they needed an interpreter. How
about it? The jeep was out in front.
The younger of the two, Lieutenant Bradford, struck me as a large,
thirty-year-old teenager, very well groomed, classy, looking rather
British-fair hair, a girl's complexion, light blue eyes. He smiled
affably.As soon as you saw him, you understood that he must have
excellent manners, always and in every situation. His colleague, a little
older, seemed sturdier because of his broad shoulders and the way he held
himself. Also because of his thick black hair and the stubborn hairs
covering his wrists down to the last joints of his fingers. He had
beautiful hands, but his facial features were a little coarse, his mouth
greedy, his eyes very black. He too was smiling most kindly as he waited
for my reply.
I said yes, of course. Why not? But first I had to inform Monsieur Royer,
our new mayor, and get his permission. I phoned. Monsieur Royer said I
could go, since there was nothing for me to do. And I followed the
The jeep was there, just outside the door, with a driver at the wheel. We
got in. The lieutenants sat in back and I sat next to the driver.
"OK, Joe," said Lieutenant Stone.
Joe shifted right into gear and no one said another word.
It wasn't easy to get out of town; there were crowds everywhere, starting
with the square in front of the city hall, which is also where the police
station is. The crowds had been there from the start, as well as in the
center of town, but Joe knew just how to maneuver without losing his
patience. As soon as we left downtown, everything went smoothly, and once
we got on the road, Joe made good time.
Joe didn't say a word, but he winked at me and passed me a pouch of Prince
Albert's. I filled my pipe.
Where were we going? It was a lovely sunny August day. We didn't pass
anyone on the road and there weren't any planes in the sky. We drove past
the ruins of a burned-out jeep.
Joe was a good driver and drove fast. You'd have thought he knew the way
as well as one of the locals. He knew where he was going; so did the
lieutenants. But I didn't. I hadn't asked, any more than I'd asked what
the case was that they needed my services for.
Joe drove for over an hour and then turned left, down a sunken road
between steep slopes planted with oak trees. After the bright light of the
road there was shade and cool air under the leaves; in the jeep the same
silence reigned. Lieutenant Stone was studying a file he had taken out of
We arrived in a hamlet. Joe, still just as sure of himself, drove into a
large sunny courtyard. At the back of the courtyard was a small house:
four walls and a slate roof. On the wall facing the courtyard was a door,
and to the left of the door a window. Joe stopped the jeep. Lieutenant
Stone put his file back into his briefcase. He got out first. Lieutenant
Bradford followed him. Then I got out. Joe stayed at the wheel.
Lieutenant Stone walked up to the door, briefcase in hand. He knocked. A
tall country woman of about fifty, rather stout, dressed in black, opened
it. We all cringed at the sight of the woman: her face looked almost as if
it had been skinned; her forehead, her left cheek, and her chin were
covered with scarlet spots.
"I know who you are," she said softly, stepping aside. "Come in."
The house consisted of a single room with a dirt floor. At the back of the
room a young woman was busy tending a stove. She didn't join us.
"Something terrible happened here," Lieutenant Stone told me as he placed
his briefcase on the table. "Would you ask this woman ...?"
He wanted to find out directly from the witness, "in her own words" as he
put it, how she had gotten those lesions on her face.
The woman replied very gently that they came from the splinters of wood
the bullet had made when it went through the door.
Lieutenant Stone and Lieutenant Bradford exchanged glances.
"Yes. So that's it," said Lieutenant Bradford.
"And then?" Lieutenant Stone turned back to me: "Ask the witness ..."
The woman went on to say that the noise of the gun blast had deafened her
and that she didn't realize right away that her husband had collapsed at
"Awful!" muttered Lieutenant Stone. "Just awful."
He sat down at the table, opened his briefcase, and took out a file, which
he spread in front of him. Lieutenant Bradford kept walking around the
room looking at everything. The girl, a handsome country girl about twenty
years old, somewhat heavy-set, with a glowing complexion, stayed next to
"Ask the witness ..."
At what time did the incident occur? Had night fallen? Had the girl gone
over to the base? Had she spoken to one of the men?
"Ask her ..."
Yes. The girl had gone to the base.
"Ask her what for."
"To have a look, like everybody else," the mother answered.
They were supposed to be so nice! Why wouldn't she have gone like the
others? Everyone had gone.
"Did she speak to one of them?"
"No," said the girl.
"But he followed her," said Lieutenant Bradford as he approached us. "Did
he know where she lived?"
"Did he follow you?" Lieutenant Stone asked.
The girl didn't know. She hadn't been aware of it.
After this reply there was another moment of silence. Lieutenant Stone
threw his pencil down on his papers-he had noted down all of the girl's
answers and those of the mother-and leaned back, as if prepared to listen
to a long story.
"Now ask the mother to tell us what happened."
The mother looked around; she raised her hand meekly, pointing at the four
walls of the room, only one of which had two openings-the door and the
"You see. This is where we have always lived. Night was falling. We were
getting ready for bed when we heard someone walking in the courtyard."
At first they thought it was a neighbor coming to ask for a favor or to
bring news. But the girl saw the silhouette of a soldier through the
window. The soldier had called out "Mamoiselle." The mother had closed the
shutters right away while the father locked the door.
"We figured out right away that it was one of the soldiers from the base."
The father yelled at the soldier to go away. "There's no Mademoiselle here
Lieutenant Stone wanted to know whether the father had insulted the
soldier. For example, had they called him a nigger?
"No, we told him to go away."
Did the witness think that the soldier was drunk at this point?
The mother had no idea. How could she have known? All she could say was
that the soldier got mad and started to kick the door.
They were terrified. On the father's orders the girl turned out the lights
and hid in a corner next to the wardrobe.
"There," said the mother, pointing to the spot.
More and more enraged, the soldier kept pounding and yelling "Mamoiselle."
They thought the door would cave in. The father and the mother leaned
against the door and stayed there for a long time, pushing against it.
"I don't know ... He was pounding hard. First with his feet, then with
something else. Father told me to get a hatchet but I didn't dare leave
The mother yelled out to her daughter to get the hatchet. The girl went,
but couldn't find it. They had to turn the light back on.
The mother spoke again: "He was pounding with the butt of his gun. Father
figured it out before I did."
"For a long time?"
"Yes. Pretty long. The door was shaking. We were still pushing against it.
He stopped. We heard him walking and we thought he had left. That's when
he fired at the door."
The father had collapsed; half of his skull was blown off. The mother
didn't understand right away. She collapsed too, but first she thought
that something had fallen on his head, she didn't know, she was
dumbstruck. Only later did she realize that she was covered in blood and
in her husband's brains and that half her cheek was torn off. From her
corner of the room, the girl had started to scream.
"Good. Let's stop there," said Lieutenant Stone. "It's terrible.
Absolutely terrible. Tell her we are sorry to have to ask all these
questions. Tell her too that the guilty party has been arrested and that
he'll be tried in two or three days."
I had the impression no one knew what to say next or what to do. The two
women, thinking the officers were finished, offered them a snack. They
couldn't refuse a cup of coffee and a slice of bread and butter? They
Lieutenant Stone demanded brusquely if they had found the bullet.
"I need that bullet!" he explained, rising from his seat with an air of
The bullet was clearly somewhere in the room. They had to find it.
"Ask her ... Ask the witness ... Ask her if they've looked for it."
"Have you looked for the bullet?"
"Yes, with the neighbors."
"And you didn't find it?"
"I need that bullet!" Lieutenant Stone said again, with even more passion.
Lieutenant Bradford knelt in front of the door to examine the gash the
bullet had made. What was its trajectory? In his opinion, we needed to
look behind the wardrobe. Maybe even inside the wardrobe?
But the two women had already searched the wardrobe and hadn't found
anything. They had looked everywhere, behind the stove, under the beds ...
"I must have that bullet!"
* * *
I let them look for the bullet and went out into the courtyard.
A few neighboring farm people were out there, surrounding Joe, who had
climbed out of the jeep and was offering them cigarettes. When he saw me,
Joe came over to me, and the people followed him. One of them asked me if
they had arrested the guy. I told him they had. They wanted to know who
the officers were and what they were doing.
"Investigating. Right now they're looking for the bullet."
Joe knew it was about a murder, but who was the murderer?
"A black man, Joe."
"And the officers, who are they, Joe?"
"Military justice. Lieutenant Stone's the prosecutor. Lieutenant
Bradford's the defense lawyer."
I explained all that to the villagers. "And who are you?" one of them
"I'm an interpreter."
"They're not bad guys, the two lieutenants, not bad guys at all," Joe
A young man came up to me, looking embarrassed. He took an old wallet with
a brass clasp out of his pocket and took the bullet out of it.
"Here's the bullet. I wanted to keep it as a souvenir, but I don't want
any trouble ..."
I took the bullet and went back into the house. I gave the bullet to
Lieutenant Stone. He cried out, "I've found the bullet!"
Holding the bullet between his thumb and index finger he held it up to
look at it and show it off. He put the bullet into his pocket and said,
* * *
On the way back, the two lieutenants weren't at all silent. What a
terrible case! Poor people! Poor father! How pitiful! And the murderer
barely twenty years old! They'd hang him of course. No one could save him
from that. Really terrible! But could you let people get raped and killed?
And of course those young black idiots had bird brains. Always ready to go
to hell for some white woman! For that they didn't even have to be drunk.
And this one probably wasn't drunk that night. He had claimed not to be
during his first interrogation. He claimed he never suspected there was
anyone behind the door. He hadn't wanted to be mean, he only wanted to
teach those people a lesson. When he started following the girl, his
intentions were good. That's what he said. Hard to believe all the same.
And yet-why not?
He claimed all he had ever wanted was to spend part of the evening with
the girl. To have a drink. He would have kissed her if she had let him but
that was all. As for the gun he had brought with him, don't forget that
American soldiers were forbidden to go out unarmed because of
snipers-German holdouts and others who were still roaming around the
He said he had gotten mad because they were afraid of him. Why were they
afraid? Just because he was black? If they had opened the door and offered
him a drink, if they hadn't treated him like a nigger ... It's true they
hadn't insulted him, but it was the same thing, and he knew, he knew.
Those people would have opened their door to a white man.
Lieutenant Stone kept saying there was some truth to what he said but it
was hard to believe it when you really knew blacks. They all said things
like that in certain cases.
"Poor guy! But they're all terrible liars, believe me!"
We would come back to get the two women so that they could testify at the
"Where did you find the bullet?" Lieutenant Bradford asked me.
"In a neighbor's wallet."
When we were taking leave of one another in front of the city hall, the
lieutenants thanked me and invited me to eat with them at the mess if I
wanted to meet them at the girls' school at seven. Then we could go to the
movies. They'd set up a movie house in the school's party room and they
were showing really good films.
As nice as their invitation was, I didn't think I ought to accept. They
didn't insist. They told me again how much I had helped them.
"You did a good job!"
They might come back and get me one of these days for another case, if I
"Goodnight then! See you soon, anyway."
"Sure. See you soon. Goodnight."
"Thanks. See you soon. Maybe tomorrow."
"OK. Goodnight!" said Joe.
"OK," said Lieutenant Stone, "OK, Joe." And Joe shifted right into gear.
Excerpted from OK, Joe
by Louis Guilloux
Copyright © 2003
by University of Chicago.
Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Posted September 18, 2014