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First-novelist Watkins re-creates a narrow slice of WW II in this conventional but painstakingly detailed story of a German boy who joins the S.S. in the final and increasingly desperate year of the Third Reich. His father having already died on the Russian front, Sebastian Westland is 17 (and caught up in a dalliance with a married woman of 32) when he leaves his school-friends and family and goes off for military training. Training school is rigorous, sometimes brutishly tyrannical--with an accidental death by machine gun, drunken trips into town on one-day leave, and an increasing sense of the certainty of death awaiting the recruits (one of whom, hysterically but logically declaring the war to be a lost cause, is badly beaten up by the others). After a home-leave, Sebastian and his fellow boy-soldiers are sent to the western front, where bit by bit they are immersed into the absoluteness of the horrors of the last-ditch war--in which orders have been given that the badly wounded be killed. As a small part of the Ardennes offensive, most of the young soldiers are indeed killed--in battle scenes that are astonishing for their feel of authenticity and flawless expertise of detail, and that rivet the reader to the page. Forced at one point lo shoot unarmed American prisoners in the field, and himself later wounded--although not gravely enough that he will be shot--Sebastian finds opportunity to murder his own S.S. training-commander (he uses a ceremonial dagger given only to members of the S.S.) but then, helpless in the maelstrom, returns to battle as his world seems to explode and crumble about him. Troubled now and then by fleeting anachronisms and flat notes (""I haven't been off with other girls, all right?"" ""I was pissed, off beyond words""), and susceptible occasionally to the artificiality of a hand-me-down lyricism, Watkins' effort remains on balance a gripping tour-de-force of battle fiction, however well-travelled the road it follows, providing an awesome glimpse of the self-destructive desperation of the end of the Reich.

Pub Date: April 11th, 1988
ISBN: 0312156081
Publisher: Knopf