With the meandering, observant style of a Robert Altman film, this hefty novel chronicles Army life during peacetime.
In the years between 1956 and 1958, the 16th Engineer Group of the United States Army, led by Major E.E. Trainer, a bawdy, cheroot-smoking veteran of two wars, waits impatiently for something to happen in the West German town they occupy. Without a battle to engage them, the soldiers become involved in other conflicts, including strained relations with the French Engineering Corps encamped nearby, fear of the Communist threat, disagreements over the draft and U.S. foreign policy and a gang of disreputable privates wrestling for power in the barracks. The book gets off to a slow start as nearly a dozen featured characters establish their presence, but it soon gathers momentum as a bus accident, suicide and flash flood challenge the community of men. Among the memorable personalities in the novel are Army Chaplain Sol Lieberman, a former swimming star turned rabbi who lectures the enlisted about the ethical wonders of world religions; Sergeant Lester Honigklausen, a lifetime military wonk who possesses a brilliance for flattering his superiors; and Wagner-loving Group Clerk Dirk Donkers, who must hide his sexuality from the rest of the men. The question of Trainer’s long-awaited promotion, complicated by rumors of past dishonor and two generals with contradictory agendas, provides the narrative that pulls the subplots together. Durer has a tendency to move from one scene of dialogue to another without taking a break for action. But the author, who served in the Army during the ’50s, uses effective details and complex characters to illustrate the messy politics that occur when men trained to fight no longer face a common enemy. In the end, this historical novel feels strangely contemporary and wise. When an officer worries about the prospect of peace, given the belligerence and pomposity of the United States, a reader can’t help but make connections to current world events.
A thoughtful page-turner about an Army without a war.