LIFE FIGHTING A BRUTAL PAST
THIS is an extraordinary memoir by a man who did not want to write it and had strong reservations about people reading it. In the 1970s and 80s, William Wharton wrote several popular literary novels, including Birdy, Dad and A Midnight Clear.
During World War II, he served in the US Army in Europe. When he came home and started a family, his children would sometimes ask him about the war, but he would never describe the ‘‘ unacceptable experiences’’ he had lived through, and found his own ‘‘ callousness, cowardice, cupidity, deception . . . impossible to defend’’.
But, in the end, real writers have to tell every story that grows inside them. They must see them read and have them judged. And so Wharton eventually completed Shrapnel, even though he knew that ‘‘ when dug up, the buried guilts of youth smell of dirty rags and old blood’’.
By 1999 Wharton was little read in English but had somehow remained popular in Poland, where Shrapnel was first published. It appeared only in a Polish-language translation and, until the author’s death in 2008, few had investigated its contents. The details of Wharton’s wartime service were regarded as a mystery, the clues to which could be found only in characters in his novels, such as Al Columbato in Birdy, who strikes a corporal in the face with a shovel.
In Shrapnel, Wharton reveals he did that and far worse, and tells how much he hated the army for teaching him how to kill.
The book begins with a series of unadorned, deadpan vignettes of Wharton’s military training, and these are bitter and boring. He offers the standard narratives of army life — the klutzy recruit; the sneaky revenge on an unpopular officer; the resourceful conscript who tricks his way out of the military; the cushy posting to the camp kitchen — but tells them with little humour and none of the masochistic nostalgia that generally accompanies barracks confessions.
Without the customary punchlines, these stories at first appear pointless and their cumulative effect is grinding, dispiriting. But it By William Wharton HarperPress, 272pp, $24.95 becomes clear that this is army life how it was lived, not how it is remembered, and it was nasty, boring, uncomfortable and pointless.
Once Wharton goes to war, Shrapnel becomes simply astonishing.
This is only a short book and it would be cruel to give too much away, but his experiences would be unbelievable if his flat, hopeless voice did not clearly carry the recognisable burden of mostly unadorned truth. I say ‘‘ mostly’’ only because Wharton’s overly expository reconstructed dialogue is rarely convincing.
Wharton, a soldier with few discernible military skills, is inexplicably parachuted into German-occupied France, alone and ahead of the entire US Army, on a secret mission to aid the French resistance.
This experience, like every other, leaves him angry and confused. But as the invasion gets under way, the horrors he witnesses become worse and worse, until he can hardly cope.
US marines approach the beaches of Normandy on D-Day