In this memoirlike novel, 19-year-old David Streiber, a Jew, is shipped out on assignment to Germany in 1959, although he doesn’t know that the months spent in what was formerly enemy territory will teach him who he is as a man.
David considers himself lucky—he could have been sent to Korea to serve out his duty in a hut. He’s doubly lucky when he finagles his way into metropolitan Nuremberg, rather than the East German border. He’s conflicted upon arrival: He knows what the Germans did to his people in the recent war, but he thinks it’s unfair to blame the youth of that nation for what their parents did. Also, as much as he knows it would kill his mother, he’s a young man, and he’s eager to see what the frauleins are like. Still in his teens, he joined the Army because he found himself at a crossroads. Not long after his enlistment, though, he realized he wanted to go to college and get out of his working-class Coney Island neighborhood, so he’s determined to keep his nose clean and finish his military service as quickly as possible. His Jewish heritage fits prominently into the story, as it shapes his relationship with his Army peers, his supervisors, the women he commingles with along the way and the landsmen he meets at synagogue and on a trip to Israel. At times, the novel reads like a memoir or travelogue, but it’s not truly either. It is, however, a sharp look at what an enlistee in the peacetime Army might suffer in his last year of service. David, who narrates, is a smart, likable and fairly identifiable tour guide. As a Jewish kid, he knows what it’s like to be an outsider. He generally gets along with the white compatriots in his outfit, but he can also relate to the African-American soldiers—at least while they’re on base. The more time he spends off base, though, the more David defines himself by his unique, personal heritage. David’s is a quieter tale, not one full of adventure and battle. It’s rooted in reality, which can sometimes border on tedium. David’s interactions with women and with his Army compatriots often seem repetitive, and he rarely seems to learn from his experiences. And yet, although he’s not jumping into foxholes or performing acts of heroism, it’s enjoyable spending time with him. The strongest scenes follow David as he travels around the rest of 1950s Europe and Israel, allowing readers to experience these places through the eyes of a Jewish kid from Brooklyn.
A unique view of an overlooked era in postwar Germany.