War is hell. But you knew that. The surprising thing is how many different ways there are to say so. Nick Arvin and Donn Pearce are both able novelists, and both cover the same ground--Europe in the closing days of World War II--but their visions could not be more different. In Arvin's "Articles of War," George Tilson (nicknamed Heck because he never swears) is an 18-year-old from Iowa who goes through combat worrying about cowardice. In Pearce's "Nobody Comes Back," 16-year-old Toby Parker spends so much time getting shot at, being captured, escaping and trying not to freeze to death that he hardly has time to complete a sentence, much less a thought. As he figures it, from the rank of sergeant and up, war is "a chess game"; below, it's "wrestling with bears."
In "Articles," Arvin's first novel, Heck slogs through an ethical no man's land. He's too scared to do much but has just enough gumption not to run; like most of us, he's neither a hero nor a heel. Arvin is at his best describing the odd vagueness of combat, where nothing is clear-cut except death. He stumbles, though, by making Heck so apple-cheeked, so average and ultimately so bland: "He longed for home." And that French girl he falls for--ze less said, ze better.
It's tempting to pick on Arvin because he's such a fussy writer. A lot of his sentences have that "Look at me" quality, and too often, it's those sentences that make you want to look away: "In one hedgerow, an American Sherman tank hung precariously in a gap it had created only to meet there its demise." Then again, he's capable of sentences that stop you cold. Having been given a command that will ruin him no matter what he does, Heck "wanted to break something, but the things to be broken were impossible to break, and he sat not moving."
"Nobody Comes Back," like "Articles of War," is a work of the imagination, but it reads like a story less imagined than remembered in vivid, angry detail blurted onto the page. Pearce is both a World War II vet and a veteran fiction writer, with three fine novels to his credit, including "Cool Hand Luke," for which he also wrote the screenplay. He gave up writing in his 40s and spent 30 years as a private investigator and a bail bondsman. In "Nobody Comes Back," he writes with the urgency of a man making up for lost time.
To get some idea of the visceral impact of this book, imagine "Saving Private Ryan" minus everything but the battle scenes. Pvt. Toby Parker has hardly landed in Europe before he's thrown into the Battle of the Bulge. For the next six days, with little idea of where he is or what he's doing, he improvises his survival as best he can, trying, not very successfully, "to find some bottom or top to any of this." Along the way, a smartass kid becomes a man molded by savagery. Near the end of the book, a doctor tries to cheer Parker with the prospect of a Purple Heart. Parker will have none of it. "We s--t ourselves scared. We kill people. Our friends get torn up and die. And the lucky ones who are still left standing say, 'Hey. Look at me. I'm a hero'." There's nothing here about the "good war" or the "greatest generation." "Nobody Comes Back" is just freshly minted hell from start to finish. If Pearce had done it any more justice, you couldn't bear to read it.