By Mark Alpert
We live in a violent world, and our present-day conflicts distort our memories of past wars. With that in mind, let’s consider this first-page sample submitted by one of our anonymous TKZ contributors:
Title: Jaeger’s Dilemma
War Department Auxiliary Building, Washington, D.C.
10 July 1943
Captain Gregory Maxwell pulled at the starched uniform collar pasted to his 16-½ inch neck as he paced the room. A whirling fan bounced humid stale air off walls the color of Baked Alaska. Blackout curtains stifled the room’s dim light. Four stiff-backed wooden chairs guarded a projector and the table upon which it sat. Sweat dripped down his narrow brow stinging his eyes. He rolled his shoulders, severing the seal of the shirt clinging to his back.
A fly buzzed his right ear. He swatted it away, then checked his watch – fifteen twenty hours. Report at thirteen-thirty he’d been directed. No rhyme, no reason, no reporting official identified.
He glanced at his watch again. He would miss drinks with the Senator if he didn’t leave soon. The fly buzzed him again. He swatted and missed.
The door opened. A petite brunette, her uniform Women’s Army Corps, entered carrying a film canister, a folder, and a glass of water.
“Surviving, Captain?” She handed him the tumbler. “Isn’t cold, had to get it from a tap in the latrine. Drawing water from the hall’s drinking fountain is like a castrated bull fathering calves. Hades will freeze over first.” She grinned a white smile. “At least the war would be over.” She started to wind the film through the projector’s sprockets. “By the way, I’m Corporal Allen.”
“How much longer?” Maxwell sipped the water. Despite the slight taste of rusted iron, the tepid liquid soothed his dry throat.
“Hard to say,” she said, her tone Midwest apologetic. “As usual, the Colonel’s working like a crazed farmer chopping a hundred acres of wheat with a single scythe and only has two days before thunderstorms strike.”
“Not to worry, Captain. Senator Downey’s been given your regrets.” The corporal’s long fingers slipped the film’s edge into the slot of the take-up reel. “Done.”
Maxwell’s brow furrowed. “I didn’t send regrets.”
“I did.” The Texas twang reverberated about the closet of a room. A full bull Colonel, devoid of his military coat, stepped inside.
Maxwell snapped to attention.
“Fuck formality, Captain. I need results. Roll the film, Allen.”
I have to admit: I’m a sucker for stories about World War II. I loved Catch-22 and Slaughterhouse Five. Two of the finest war poems of all time are Randall Jarrell’s “Eighth Air Force” and “The Death of the Ball Turret Gunner.” And of course there are all the amazing movies about the war, from The Longest Day and The Dirty Dozen to Saving Private Ryan and Inglourious Basterds. (My personal favorite is Twelve O’Clock High, which was considered such a good primer on leadership techniques that at one time it was required viewing at West Point. General Curtis LeMay, the Eighth Air Force veteran who later talked about bombing Vietnam “back into the Stone Age,” was also a big fan of the film.)
But of the 16 million veterans of World War II, only about half a million are still alive, and they’re dying off at a rate of 2,500 per week. Can we still write compelling novels about WWII after so much time? I think we can, but it’s inevitable that the experience of more recent wars will color our stories of the so-called “Good War,” in the same way that the Vietnam War changed the depiction of the Korean War in M*A*S*H. And as all writers of historical fiction know, the author must be constantly wary of anachronisms and clichés.
For example: I grew up during the Cold War, and in my neighborhood in Queens most of the apartment buildings were plastered with yellow-and-black Fallout Shelter signs. When I looked out my bedroom window, I imagined mushroom clouds blooming over the Manhattan skyline. In 1982 I went to the epic “No Nukes” rally in Central Park, and a year later the anti-war song “99 Red Balloons” was playing on all the radio stations. I was in graduate school at the time, studying poetry, and when I tried to write a poem about nuclear apocalypse, the result was a weird mash-up of Twelve O’Clock High and Dr. Strangelove:
I dreamed of the secret bomber squadron,
seventeen jets that would start the war.
I dreamed, in particular, of an airfield in the jungle
on a South Pacific island, on the underside of the world,
where a sudden strike could maim the enemy
(thus spoke our generals, and we believed them).
Hidden in shadow, on the underside of the world,
where the world’s detonation would begin…
We trained for the mission in utmost secrecy,
six weeks that passed so quickly I never even
learned my place in the bomber. The general
asked me, “What’s your position, son?
Tail-gunner? Waist-gunner? Bombardier? Turret-gunner?”
The Plexiglas bubbles, like transparent boils
on the skin of the bomber (and in every airman’s mind
was a vision of cracked and bullet-pocked glass),
the positions of death, all my friends assigned
to one or the other. I told the general,
“I’ll be in charge of the parachutes, sir,”
but my friends didn’t think this joke was funny.
The general scowled at me, his face twisted
in anger, his breath stinking of cough drops.
A dozen times we loaded onto the bus
and rode down the path through the jungle,
heading for the island’s airfield. We were ready
to take flight and complete our mission,
but we turned back every time, our orders
canceled. Once, the general lost his nerve.
Another time, all the officers decided we
couldn’t attack without eating breakfast first.
So we turned the bus around
and headed back to the canteen…
Three women sat across the table from me,
dressed in twill uniforms like the Andrews Sisters,
curly hair spilling from their garrison caps.
I watched them flirt with the enlisted men.
I argued with them. I made a fool of myself again.
Meanwhile, my friends devoured bowls of oatmeal,
drank water from clean glasses, wiped their hands
on paper napkins. They didn’t say grace,
didn’t pat their bellies, didn’t ask for more.
We were waiting, all of us, for the last day
to arrive, when the word would come down
and we’d get our final orders (we were so sick
and tired of all the tests and drills), when the bus
would reach the end of the jungle path
and let us off at the airfield, that broad flat clearing
with the red and green lights flashing maniacally
in the short grass on both sides of the runway.
How many days and nights did we wait?
How many of us prayed for the word to come down?
The dream ended. I sat up in bed, trying to
picture everyone I’d left behind on that island,
all the enlisted men and officers and their scowling general.
The end of the world — why did we pray so hard for it?
And do they still pray for it now that I’ve left them?
Maybe it was my disappearance they were waiting for
and now the planes are taking off, one by one, from the airfield
and in the fishbowl view of every gunner’s glass turret
the red and green lights are fading in the distance…
See what I mean about clichés? I was born in 1961, long after the heyday of the Andrews Sisters (see photo above), and yet they somehow managed to worm their way into my subconscious.
I also thought of World War II clichés when reading the opening paragraphs of this first-page submission. I love the idea of featuring a strong, outspoken WAC corporal in this novel, but Corporal Allen goes a little overboard with her Midwest farm-girl metaphors: “Drawing water from the hall’s drinking fountain is like a castrated bull fathering calves.” “As usual, the Colonel’s working like a crazed farmer chopping a hundred acres of wheat with a single scythe and only has two days before thunderstorms strike.” It’s just too much, too obvious. In this case, less is more. Also, I didn’t like the sentence, “She grinned a white smile.” Better to say something like, “She smiled. Her teeth were perfect.”
The colonel with the Texas twang doesn’t appear until the last few paragraphs of this submission, but I’m worried that he’s going to veer into cliché territory too. First of all, I was a bit thrown by the term “full bull colonel” – I assume that means the same thing as the more common term “full bird colonel” (so-called because of the eagle insignia on a colonel’s uniform), but maybe it carries the extra implication that the man is built like a bull (or full of bullshit)? Either way, I think I’ve seen this guy before in about a hundred World War II movies. In the following pages of the novel, I hope the author develops the colonel into a more original character.
But my biggest complaint with this submission is about the all-important point-of-view character, Captain Maxwell. He’s worse than a cliché — he’s a cipher. We know the size of his neck, but almost nothing about what’s going on inside his head. His main preoccupations seem to be annoyance about a buzzing fly and anxiety over missing a barroom rendezvous with a U.S. senator. From the latter, I assume the captain’s job is to be a liaison officer, a contact between the Army and Congress – why else would a lowly captain have drinks with a senator? – and that would’ve been a pretty cushy posting in July 1943 when thousands of other Army officers were dying in Sicily or the South Pacific. But I’m just guessing, you see. Because the author hasn’t told us what Maxwell is thinking, I have to make guesses, many of which are probably unflattering and unfair and make me dislike the character right off the bat.
That’s not a good way to start a novel. I’m always inclined to like the main character of a book, but the author has to give me at least an inkling of what the character is thinking and what he/she wants. Maybe Maxwell is extremely frustrated about being stationed in Washington. Maybe he’s dying to get away from his desk job and fight Hitler or Hirohito. But the author has to hint at this desire right at the beginning. Otherwise, I’m going to assume that Maxwell is just an irritable goldbricker, and I’ll probably stop reading the novel.
One more thing: Maxwell should kill the fly with a barehanded swat. It’s kind of gross, but also interesting. It would hint that he has fantastic reflexes, which might come in handy in combat scenes later on in the book. As I’ve said before on this blog, competent characters are always more interesting than incompetent ones.
Sorry, yet another thing: Despite Corporal Allen’s overactive farm metaphors, I got the sense that this petite brunette is, in 1940s lingo, “a real peach.” And yet Captain Maxwell doesn’t seem very interested in her. That was disappointing. Part of the allure of World War II stories is that their characters are usually eager to hop into bed with one another, mostly because the threat of death is so near. And giving Maxwell more of a sex drive would help to define the character and make him less of a cipher.