Conrad is at war -- with his apathetic father, his insipid family and school life, his friends, and, ultimately, himself. He is fascinated with the power and violence of World War II, and he studies it intensely, building scale models of its engines of destruction. Death and human suffering, for him, are "quite different" from "killingm and armym and war."m
It's "Conrad at the controls" -- tyrannizing his old man, a pathetic, comic figure of a writer who scribbles sentimental plays "about nurses crying and people carrying on about sex." It's "Conrad in charge," for a time, at least, of his life and his fantasies. He imagines himself driving a British Centurion tank, surging with the tank's power, plowing over the countryside. He decides to build a full-scale version of the tank in the garage, as another less enterprising and less obsessed boy might build a go-cart.
The story and the fantsy turn when the dream-tank becomes real, and Conrad begins to "leak' through to another time, like the way a soggy liver sausage sandwich makes a wet hole in his lunch bag. Conrad finds himself back in World War II, the pilot of a now-real Avro Lancaster bomber, like the one he has glued together in another time and place from an Airfix model kit. Soon he discovers he is no longer the total master of his active, aggressive imaginings.
Andrew Davies' characterization of this inventive but alienated and cynical boy rings true. Conrad is typical of so many junior high school boys -- we've all known him, perhaps have been him once ourselves. Conrad's teachers think he is bright but needing to be "extended." Conrad's parents think his fixation on warfare is awful. Conrad thinks the adults in his life are ridiculous.
During the course of the story Davies leads Conrad on an odyssey through the landscape of the war. He takes Conrad (now a young, cocky first lieutenant) on a night raid over Nuremberg and has him shot down, captured, and interrogated. Conrad, still "in control," engineers a dramatic escape from the castle (a la "Grand Illusion") where he and his father (who has come along on the fantasy as his incompetent tailgunner) are imprisoned. Eventually, Conrad "leaks" back into his own time and the safety, which he has come to appreciate, of his own nonviolent, quiet household.
Davies has come up with an interesting and very readable fantasy, which won the 1978 Guardian Award for Children's Fiction in England. There is something thin about the book, however, Davies makes Conrad's experience in the war too easy. Conrad's escape from the German stronghold reminds one of "Hogan's Heroes"; the nightmare of evil that Davies foreshadows in the early parts of the book is too slickly turned aside by conrad's relentless energy. The ease with which he surmounts life-threatening obstacles is made possible only because the adults (be they English or German) are such buffoons. Thus, the antiwar statement that Davies tries to make does not come across with any real or lasting force.
Davie's satirical, sometimes surrealistic humor is often one of the saving elements of the book, but the jokes don't work at the end -- or they shouldn't. When Conrad finds himself seated at the family breakfast table. having "leaked" back into his familiar world, he remarks to his happily surprised parents that he has given up his war games. But Conrad cannot stand their enthusiastic approval. He glibly turns aside any deeper realizations he's brought home with him from the front, quipping that he's goingto go into electricity next -- "Yes, very interesting, electricity. What I'm planning to do is build an electric chair." The point, it seems to me, is lost, and so is the larger war -- the one we all must wage to come to terms with our own dark forces.