Our book today is Soldiers of ’44, a taut and tightly-focused WWII novel by Bill McGivern, who published it in 1979 to some enviable reviews (the Atlantic Monthly called it “altogether a remarkably fine book,” and the indefatigable John Barkham said it was “combat writing raised to the level of literature”). It’s the story of a small group of soldiers detailed to a gun section in Belgium during the Battle of the Bulge, and even the casual reader might notice the stylistic influence of Michael Shaara’s incredibly successful American Civil War novel The Killer Angels, which had appeared a few years earlier. Shaara’s book has gone on to a well-deserved immortality, continuously stocked in bookshops and assigned in schools. The very limited scrap of immortality that clings to Bill McGivern is his string of hard-boiled noir novels (culminating in the intense but almost comically bad Rogue Cop), and that’s a shame, as is the noticeable echo of Shaara: Soldiers of ’44 is far and away the best thing McGivern ever wrote, and its quality isn’t dimmed one candle by any resemblance to any other book. If Shaara set a template for a certain school of modern historical fiction, good for him – but templates are open proving-grounds for talent, not exclusive country clubs.
Soldiers of ’44 has not been immortalized, far from it: it courts its own dismissal by hewing fairly close to some of the hoariest cliches of WWII-fiction. There’s the tough but kind-hearted commander, in this case Lieutenant Buell “Bull” Docker, and there’s an alluring, exotic civilian woman, and there are philosophical (but evil) Germans:
“Armies gain glory in victory but they achieve immortal character in defeat. From this moment on, Jaeger, you must think and speak and act as if you are under surveillance by generations of unborn Germans. What you think will be known, what you speak will be heard, what you do will be seen. Always keep that foremost in your mind.”
And Docker’s gun group is made up of the usual Hollywood assortment of guys – there’ll be the lazy one, the clueless one, the one called “Shorty” who’s from Brooklyn and lives to be ninety, and there’ll be the bad apple, the insubordinate lout who can corrupt a whole regiment if he isn’t culled and ritualistically humiliated. God only knows if real WWII combat groups had such a rigorous roster (our grandfathers are all in the ground – and they wouldn’t have told us anyway), but they’re a staple of fiction, and staples of fiction are as good or as bad as you make them. McGivern, writing after a very busy lifetime of generating prose for all occasions (and earning a respectable fortune whoring his talents in Hollywood), came to this novel – which had been germinating for a quarter of a century, as ambitious historical novels tend to do, certainly as Shaara’s did – with all his considerable gifts for dialogue and pacing at their sharpest. Bull Docker must deal with the Nazis who have his position surrounded and are very nearly able to overwhelm it, but he must also deal with the aforementioned bad apple, a soldier named Haskell (McGivern having a little fun with his memories of the quintessential bad-apple-in-the-making from “Leave it to Beaver”?):
Docker stared at the mechanics standing behind Haskell, remembering their names – Dolan, Granowski, Lenny Rado, but nothing else about them because now they were only ugly reflections of Haskell to him, and for the waste and stupidity they represented he felt an anger that was different from what had gripped him when he had looked at the personal effects of his dead soldiers. This anger had no loneliness or pain or compassion mixed in it … it was pure, a destructive feeling that denied Haskell and his men even contempt or bitterness. “You’re not listening,” he said. “It’s over now.” There were touches of color high in his face, and behind the masked alertness in his eyes an evidence of something so violent that when Haskell recognized it his smile changed and he rubbed a heavy hand over his lips.
In a canny tactical decision, McGivern shifts the action at the book’s climax from the battlefield to the courtroom (the trial scenes are protracted, and readers won’t want them any other way – the world lost a first-rate writer of legal thrillers when McGivern decided to concentrate on dames and molls, and to write dialogue for “Kojak”), and he winds things up with the kind of “what ever happened to …?” afterword that Shaara uses to such poetic effect in The Killer Angels. The whole thing is imbued with feeling and compulsive readability and all the humanism McGivern had to offer. All those glowing reviews are very much deserved. so