Thursday, October 11, 2007

Nick Arvin/Articles of War

I’ve had Nick Arvin’s debut novel, Articles of War for several months now and didn’t pick it up to read it until very recently because I assumed the subject matter wouldn’t appeal to me.

The story’s main character is a prematurely balding 18 year old farm kid from Iowa, who finds himself on Omaha Beach in 1944. “Heck”, as he’s known by his fellow soldiers because of his reluctance to curse, is the story of a naïve boy who finds himself in the middle of the horror and the confusion of battle and discovers that he is a coward. Arvin’s precise, economical prose brings us so deeply into Heck’s terror, it makes us wonder how anyone put into the horror of war can summon the courage, or perhaps the madness needed to rush into battle and almost certain death or disfigurement.

Heck meets a disturbing French refugee family early on in the book and his brief, awkward physical encounter with Claire serves as a wobbly beacon of hope for him throughout most of the story. I’m not a fan of gratuitous romance in fiction, but I found this subplot to be interesting and well integrated and I disagreed with Janet Maslin’s criticism of this “standard ingredient” in her New York Times Book Review of Articles of War. The romance was far from standard and served to further embody the elements of shame that followed Heck through the forests of France and Germany.

Arvin’s descriptions of fear summoned a visceral response in me. In a scene where Heck is in the back of a truck and on the way to the battlefield:

“Heck decided that his own fear definitely annoyed him. It felt now like an object, exactly as if someone had cut him open, stuffed this thing inside, and sewn the flesh closed again.”

Arvin was inspired to write the book after reading an article about Private Eddie Slovik, the first American soldier to be executed for desertion since the Civil War, and in fact, Slovik’s story is integrated into the in the plot.

This story explores the issues of courage and cowardice and it reveals that neither are neatly categorized. I could not help but think often about the soldiers in Iraq as I read this story.

More of a novella than a novel, the book is a slim 178 pages. Arvin's prose is spare and elegant. Rarely have I read a book with such vivid description, written so economically. His depiction of the physical sensation of fear, in particular is incredible.

Articles of War was selected by Denver Major John Hickenlooper as the city’s selection for the One Book One Denver program.

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