Violence, betrayal, and compromise mark the lives of a motley band of World War I recruits in Daigle’s debut novel.
Joseph Whelan, James Swift, and Cass Ballard have all suffered from unhappiness in their lives. Whelan, who was brought up in a Brooklyn orphanage, takes up organized crime with the notorious Gopher Gang; Swift, the son of a Chicago meatpacking magnate, struggles with the social stratification of his boarding school; and Ballard, who departs North Carolina to join the Army, is brutally assaulted during his journey to enlist. All three eventually find themselves drafted into the U.S. Army’s 165th Regiment, and they’re soon killing young soldiers who are similar to themselves. The labor of battle and the weight of the past have effects on the young men, and questions of mercy, punishment, obligation, and forgiveness arise as each does his best to stay alive. In the pressure of combat, Swift starts exhibiting psychopathic traits and confesses to slicing the hamstrings of a soldier who attempted desertion. Whelan, meanwhile, becomes anxious about a police officer who attempts to alert his military superiors to his crimes in Manhattan. Later, Swift’s actions give Whelan the opportunity to shed long-standing guilt and start over. Overall, this novel is intense but believable, and the drama is relentless. But despite the book’s action-heavy orientation, the prose is speckled with moments that possess a certain accuracy and psychological acuity, such as the counterintuitive idea that soldiers’ desires to live can lead them to their deaths and that Swift, who lacks an emotional “home,” runs no risk of this. The insights aren’t belabored, though; instead, they’re naturally borne out by the novel’s events. Its images are also astutely placed; at one point in the chaos of battle, for example, a dead, eviscerated mule is found lodged 30 feet up a tree.
A skillful, agonizing parable of wartime trauma
and quiet persistence.