In this ambitious and only fitfully compelling first novel, a Czechoslovakian-born American writer offers an impressively researched and strongly felt portrayal of the life of a British airman before and during WWII. Protagonist and narrator Wayne Luthie sets out to narrate the story of his service as an RAF officer, his capture during the battle later known as “the miracle of Dunkirk,” and his imprisonment and torture by the Germans—all in the irrational hope that by “reliving” it he may be able to change its outcome. But Luthie’s control of his story (which includes letters home to his family in England) is subverted by fragmented memories: of his earliest years in India, where he was born to a middle-aged (and pacifist) father and young mother; boyhood in England and a painfully recalled relationship with his parents’ married housemaid; flight training and combat experiences with subordinates and intimate friends; a frustratingly truncated affair with a compassionate nurse; scraps of children’s games and songs, miscellaneous fragments of pop culture, and the like—all jumbled together in a staccato stream of consciousness that’s rendered in brief, gasping, often single-sentence or one-word paragraphs. The effect is unsettling, as if A Farewell to Arms had been written in the machine-gun style of James Ellroy’s contemporary noir crime novels. And the language with which Luthie expresses his most heartfelt emotions is at once awkward and rhetorically inflated (“And so I took her and gave myself to her in. . . well, in bittersweet joy”). A bold first attempt that, at half its present length, might have been more involving.