On Saturday I finished reading The Barracks Thief by Tobias Wolff. The Barracks Thief is Wolff’s first novel/novella, published in 1984. In 1985, it was award the PEN/Faulkner Award for the year’s best fiction.
I’ve been reading a lot of first novels lately as I edit and rewrite my own. These “firsts” are usually short, sweet, and rough around the edges. The Barracks Thief is no exception.
Ostensibly the book is about a young soldier training to become a paratrooper before going off to Vietnam. I say “ostensibly” because the novel starts out following the life of one character, then sort of starts over again with a second, completely switches it up in the middle with a third, then ends following the second character again. The style doesn’t really change too much from section to section, other then dropping all quotations from the dialogue when following the third character.
The story is this: A paratrooper joins the military in an attempt to escape his troubled family, including a brother that has disappeared to San Francisco. Over the Forth of July weekend, he is grouped with two other new recruits whose task is to guard an ammunition dump. While on guard, they spot a forest fire, and a couple of townspeople try to convince the three soldiers to leave the area before they are all blown to pieces. They refuse, and threaten the two men with their guns. Afterwards, someone steals a few wallets from other soldiers in the barracks.
The book then switches abruptly to following a third character, one of the other new recruits. We see him get a ride to town, have a quasi-homosexual brush with a local school teacher, and then try to buy a female prostitute to make up for it. The prostitute is the oldest and craziest one in town, and this soldier sort of falls in love with her — or at least tries to convince himself that he’s in love. He needs money to buy her time, then we are shown him stealing a wallet. OK, so there’s your barracks thief.
Finally, the novel switches back to the initial (second) protagonist. He witnesses the barracks thief being caught after every soldier is forced to stand in formation and empty their pockets. Then the novel pretty much ends in the course of a page or two. The barracks thief is dishonorably discharged, the soldier goes to Vietnam, and his brother magically appears at home again. He concludes by thinking about how crazy he was guarding that ammunition dump. The End.
Despite the roughness of the book, I liked it. Wolff has some great descriptions of the setting in North Carolina. I especially liked how he repeatedly referres to beetles flying into people’s faces. Nice detail — I know exactly what he means. I would have liked the fire scene to be a little longer, and the thief part to read more like a mystery. I would have also liked the soldier to go search for his brother, or at least make some phone calls in an attempt to find him. But, all in all, it didn’t seem like there was much at stake for anyone, and the transition to the third character in the middle was odd.
But it is a good first book. And short, only about 25,000 words. If you have a couple of hours to kill, it is definitely worth the time.