A Captivating Novel, A review of Nick Arvin’s Articles of War
by Paul Kennebeck
Chances are that any good novel is difficult to write, but it seems that the most difficult would be a straightforward, realistic novel that holds the reader’s attention solely through its ability to engage the reader’s empathy. Don’t all good novels do that? Of course. But it seems that loose and baggy novels of the sort written by Jonathon Foer, Kurt Vonnegutt or a book like Catch-22 affords the author a variety of ways to seduce a reader — jokes, unending plot twists, hyberbolic prose. All of which, of course, can be vastly appealing.
In Articles of War, Nick Arvin seduces the reader by careful meticulous prose that reveals the character of a young man caught in some of the most horrific fighting of World War II. The novel is told through the eyes of Heck, who arrives in Normandy just after D-Day and what follows for Heck are the unimaginable horrors of war made graphically imaginable by Arvin. (Maybe that’s a crude definition of a writer’s task: imagine the unimaginable). These horrors are not displayed superfluously. They are not the scenes of a "grade B" Hollywood thriller whose director piles
on the splattered blood in order to tart up his script. Arvin describes his war scenes in a style that seems to downplay the awfulness of the events even as the reader understands how awful the events are. It is the quietness of the prose and the manner in which the war’s events are made to seem routine that supply the horror. The reader experiences what Arvin’s young soldier experiences.
There is a scene at the beginning of the novel which explains that infantrymen were often transported into battle by deuce and half trucks. Arvin writes: "An infantryman could calculate precisely how much danger he was in by watching how fast the drivers turned around and got out of there." This is a nice observation. Later, when Heck is transported to the front, he is aware how quickly his transport leaves the area. Heck and the reader know what the immediate future holds.
Heck’s emotional response to the war is finely calibrated. Arvin’s ability to describe this emotional reaction is the core of the novel. Extreme incidents are described in an almost subdued prose. Heck witnesses a soldier becoming a bloody mist after the soldier stumbled on a booby trap. Heck sees the corpse of a dead soldier being eaten by a dog that the troops have befriended. The reader empathizes with Heck and that empathy takes an odd twist when the reader discovers Heck is a coward. One aspect of the novel’s impact on the reader is that the actions of a coward seem eminently reasonable.
There are many novels that describe war: the books of Ernest Hemingway, Norman Mailer and Tim O’Brien come to mind. One difference between those three authors and Nick Arvin is that Arvin has never been in the military and has not witnessed battle. The reader would never guess such a thing. Arvin’s ability to incorporate what he has read about the Battle of the Bulge, coupled with his ability to imagine the emotional response to war’s daily events, make superfluous any need to have witnessed the events first hand.
Arvin has also written a collection of short stories, In the Electric Eden. Those stories, coupled with Articles of War, demonstrate the depth of his imagination. All the stories are grounded in reality (as compared to meta-fiction, magical realism, etc.) and the reality is artfully placed on the page — be it World War Two France, 1860’s America, Turn of the Century America, or contemporary times. In the short stories the protagonist, almost always a male, lives through an odd series of wonderfully crafted events – an automobile accident, watching a scout balloon during the Civil War, watching a demonstration of electricity – all of which have a tinge of sadness to them, the characters left to accept what Life has brought them.
Arvin lives in Denver and is on the faculty of Lighthouse Writer’s Workshop, a local writer’s workshop. His novel has received outstanding reviews from a large number of reviewers. The novel was chosen to be Denver’s "One Book, One Denver" choice, won the Colorado Book Award, the W.Y. Boyd Literary Award, and Arvin has received the Rosenthal Foundation Award, McCormick Fellowship and National Endowment of the Arts Fellowship, among other honors.
A Conversation with Nick Arvin
How did Articles of War come to be written? What influences were absorbed by its author? Many readers know that the story of Lieutenant Henry in A Farewell to Arms originally began with his interlude in a hospital recovering from war injuries. After writing that scene, the author, Ernest Hemingway, decided he should explain how Henry ended up in the hospital and how he came to be injured in the war. Thus the reader of that novel now sees the famous opening sentence, In the late summer of that year… and learns about Henry’s experiences in World War I in Italy. Maybe the lesson is: Don’t begin at the beginning.
In a brief conversation in which Nick Arvin responded to specific questions, he indicated that Articles of War had its beginning when he was searching on the internet and read about Private Eddie Slovik, the first American soldier to be executed for desertion since the Civil War. Arvin’s initial venture into his novel evolved around Slovik, scenes which now occur toward the end of Articles of War. Arvin researched, read memoirs, and then began his story by placing Heck in World War II a little after D-Day, with Heck surviving horrific battles until finally arriving at the Slovik episode. Arvin explains he wrote the novel in fragments and then put the fragments into chronological order.
Heck is an odd character. While discussing Wright Morris’ The Works of Love (available for one penny on Amazon.com), Arvin mentioned how the protagonist of that novel, Will Brady, is a little like Heck in his struggle to find feelings. He has trouble connecting with people, trouble with his feeling or lack of feeling. During Will Brady’s wedding, his attention gets caught by scenes outside the church ceremony — the landscape, the people — and Will has to be reminded to kiss the bride. Maybe a little of that disconnectedness is in Heck, Arvin suggested.
Articles of War is written in a realistic manner. And Arvin will tell you he is fond of authors who stay within the bounds of realism. Arvin described reading W.G. Sebald while he was writing his novel. Sebald wrote of the holocaust and Arvin spoke of Sebald’s meandering long sentences, writing lines of observations rather than traditional stories. Another writer he mentioned was Denis Johnson and his National Book Award winning Tree of Smoke, about the Vietnam war. And Graham Greene. Greene can provoke many responses in readers, but in this instance a discussion about Greene’s novels ended with a failed attempt to remember the book whose name neither of us could recall – The Comedians.
And maybe it was the struggle with memory that caused the pleasant conversation to end.