Nam book year's best

The Barracks Thief, by Tobias Wolff. New York: Ecco Press. 1984. 101 pp. $12.50. This remarkable short novel, virtually unnoticed by reviewers (including this one) when it appeared last summer, was recently named the winner of the PEN Faulkner Award for the year's most distinguished work of American fiction. It is a more than worthy choice, and a powerful reminder to those of us who think we know the literary territory that every serious book has a claim on us, and that there really isn't any substitute for reading everything, or at least trying to.

The story begins in Seattle in the mid-1960s, focusing on a soon-to-be-broken family, the Bishops, and following the beginning military career of their eldest son, Philip, a confused and angry boy drifting away from family and toward nothing in particular. Philip joins the Army as a paratrooper trainee, and the quiet, rather flat omniscient narrative describes his basic training experiences in Georgia and North Carolina preparatory to a tour of duty in Vietnam.

Then, by way of a daring and surprising shift in viewpoint, we enter the mind and feelings of a parallel character -- one of Philip's Army buddies. Their separate stories cohere, stunningly (though Wolff never forces the connections), and confer real power on the ending that shows Philip in later life, long after Vietnam, having become ``a careful man'' and now remembering ``how it felt to be a reckless man with reckless friends.''

``The Barracks Thief'' is a moving and original rendering of antagonisms and apprehensions probably peculiar to youth at any time, but intensified in the twin contexts of ongoing war and a culture that seems to view separation, even alienation, as available social options.

Wolff displays his characters' ennui and semi-despair in abrupt Hemingway-like scenes that understate strong emotion and slowly draw us deep inside these embryonic lives struggling toward maturity and completion.

There are several fully rounded, moving scenes: Philip rejecting his estranged father's ardent efforts to reconnect; a confrontation between soldiers on parade and a cadre of war protesters; a hallucinatory extended description of three soldiers guarding an ammo dump as a nearby fire intensifies. In fact, so many recognizable longings and fears are packed into this taut book's brief compass that we come away from it scarcely believing how much its people, and we, have been through.

Bruce Allen reviews books regularly for the Monitor.

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