The experiences of battle fatigue and constant exposure to mortal danger are depicted with raw immediacy and terse power in this short novel from veteran Bausch (Thanksgiving Night, 2006, etc.).
The book describes the ordeal of a “recon squad” lost in a mountainous area of Italy in the waning war year of 1944. The squad loses several of its men and things unravel further when a hard-bitten sergeant shoots to death both a German soldier and the woman hiding with him in a Nazi tank. Three soldiers struggle on alone: Boston Jew Saul Asch, embittered redneck Benny Joyner and their leader, Corporal Robert Marson, an ingenuous young husband and father, a once promising baseball player and a virtually prototypical “good American.” This sounds like a generic war-movie scenario, and there are echoes of Stephen Crane, James Jones and particularly William Styron’s The Long March. But Bausch sustains a gripping atmosphere of wintry dread, and he keeps the reader hooked with subtly accreting little surprises, as Marson and his small crew appropriate the services of an aging Italian farmer, Angelo, to guide them up and down the treacherous mountainside. Is Angelo a “fascisti”? In bits of broken English the old man vigorously denies accusations hurled at him by the distrustful Joyner—as Marson, tortured by a painful foot injury and burdened with authority he wields only reluctantly, labors to keep them all together. Then, the body of a presumably “executed” German soldier is discovered, repeated rifle shots that can only mean one horrific thing are heard and Marson’s survival skills and resolve are put to ultimate physical and moral tests.
Bausch admirably turns a familiar story into something genuinely new.