A MIDNIGHT CLEAR by William Wharton


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??Wharton's previous novels--Birdy, Dad--have treated the extraordinary and the strangely angled with such quiet ordinariness that one reads this seemingly plain WW II story waiting for the catch--the resonance couched in deceptively straight-ahead language that is Wharton's strongest imaginative virtue. This time, however, there's no such twist or depth; and Wharton admirers are hound to be disappointed. The narrator here is Will Knott (called Wont by his fellows), a non-com sergeant serving in the Ardennes with a reconnaissance and intelligence platoon. The platoon has an odd pedigree, being made up of super-bright high-school boys originally slated to be reservists held back home to fill the war-depleted professions. But shortages made them draftable--and now, despite sharp brains, they face having them possibly blown out; bridge players, they guard deserted French chateaux instead. Still, their above-the-norm intelligence does make them open to clever solutions to otherwise deadly problems. For instance, and at the novel's center, there's the appearance of a German platoon that seems to want to mock Wont's squad rather than massacre them: the Germans set up soldier corpses--German and American--in dance positions; they sing carols, leave scarecrows, even erect a makeshift Christmas tree. The Germans, scared and beaten, want out, the American squad realizes; through eerie symbols they're communicating their readiness for surrender. And this mini-truce almost comes off--but mistakes and nerves doom it, plunging everyone back into the violence of "normal" war. As beguiling as the idea of masquerade-within-carnage is, however, Wharton never seems to do more than feather its edges: there's a distressing lack of momentum or development here. And though the intellectual precociousness of the young G.I.s (and their terrible fear) is well done, it's not enough to hold this fragile novel together. So, even if Wharton's narrative voice remains so warmly inviting and unpretentious that you can't help but be carried along, this time the journey has a scattered destination: experience reflected in bits and pieces of mirror rather than in a ceiling of glass (Bird) or a whole interior room of it (Dad).
Pub Date: Sept. 10th, 1982
ISBN: 1557042578
Page count: 260pp
Publisher: Knopf
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Sept. 1st, 1982


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