Tobias Wolff: In Pharaoh’s Army: Memories of the Lost War

I had wanted to wait to read Wolff’s In Pharaoh’s Army (1994), a finalist for the National Book Award in nonfiction in 1994.  I wanted to wait because besides his short stories, most of which I’ve now read, this was it until Wolff’s next novel is published.  But I couldn’t, because every other book I started was some kind of torture, for sitting right there on the table was another unread Wolff book.  Finally realizing that I might not fully enjoy reading until I got this one out of the way, I caved.  It was highly satisfying, and, I’m happy to say, I’ve enjoyed the books I’ve read since I finished it.

This Boy’s Life ends when Wolff is still a troubled fifteen year old, having just found out, against all probability, that he was accepted at one of the most prestigious private schools in America.  I guess for now we have to take Old School, Wolff’s only novel proper still published, as an account of what that part of his life could have been like, because In Pharaoh’s Army picks up after Wolff has been expelled and is searching for the next step in life.

In a way, In Pharaoh’s Army is a sampling of what Wolff does best, memoir and short story.  While there is a general narrative arch, the book is divided into thirteen discrete stories, each able to stand alone though best read as part of the larger structure.  The first of these stories is called “Thanksgiving Special.”  Here we meet Wolff, already in Vietnam:

Some peasants were blocking the road up ahead.  I honked the horn but they chose not to hear.  They were standing around under their pointed hats, watching a man and a woman yell at each other.  When I got closer I saw two bicycles tangled up, a busted wicker basket, and vegetables all over the road.  It looked like an accident.

When I read these first lines, I paused briefly at that last sentence.  This is clearly an accident; what does “looked like” mean.  I was further taken by surprise when Wolff describes the sound of the crunching metal as he runs his vehicle over the bicycles.  To me this was adding insult to injury.  And it was all done so matter-of-factly.

I didn’t say anything .  What could I say?  I hadn’t done it for fun.  Seven months back, at the beginning of my tour, when I was still calling them people instead of peasants, I wouldn’t have run over their bikes.  I would have slowed down or even stopped until they decided to move their argument to the side of the road, if it was a real argument and not a setup.  But I didn’t stop anymore.  Neither did Sergeant Benet.  Nobody did, as these peasants — these people — should have known.

The first story showcases Wolff’s control over his material.  He always seems to know where to lead readers so that the story reveals fresh and sometimes shocking observations.  This could be just me.  His tone and style are unassuming, and I for one am usually so engaged in what is going on on the page at that moment that I don’t think too much about where we’re going — consequently, I’m frequently pleasantly surprised.

Rather than try to summarize the thirteen segments here, let me describe their arch.  We a few stories from Woolf’s training, a few from the year he spent in Washington D.C. studying Vietnamese to become an officer, several from the his tour, and a few after he returned home. 

More appropriate for this review would be, I think, to show one of the most interesting threads that ties the stories together.  When Wolff enlisted, he did so for a variety of muddled motives.  For one, he didn’t have a high school diploma; for another, he felt the need to surpass his father, to be the honorable man his father was not (and, to my delight, we get to know his father a bit in this book, whereas he was just a ghostly presence in This Boy’s Life); and for another, he had a strong desire to be a writer, and his favorite authors, particularly Hemingway, witnessed war — Vietnam would offer him wide experiences and give him the chance to invent himself anew, yet again:

I wanted to be a writer myself, had described myself as one to anybody who would listen since I was sixteen.  It was laughable for a boy my age to call himself a writer on the evidence of two stories in a school lit mag, but improbable as this self-conception was, it nevertheless changed my way of looking at the world.  The life around me began at last to take on form, to signify.  No longer a powerless confusion of desires, I was now a protagonist, the hero of a novel to which I endlessly added from the stories I dreamed and saw everywhere.

One of the threads in these stories is the problem of writing about experience, particularly about this kind of experience.  And particularly about how to write about one’s self in such experiences.  But Wolff deals with himself rather unsympathetically, though not coldly. 

It seems that Wolff enlisted with faith in the war effort.  Even if his primary motive wasn’t to help the cause, he at least believed the cause was right.  Perhaps, “believed” is the wrong word — he “trusted” the cause was right.  But as the muddle of war took over, as he saw himself running over bicycles in the street, and felt the grief as one friend after another “died a man at a time, at a pace almost casual,” we see him evolve. 

The Quiet Americanaffected me disagreeably.  I liked to think that good intentions had value.  In this book good intentions accomplished nothing but harm.  Cynicism and accommodation appeared, by comparison, almost virtuous.  I didn’t like that idea.  It seemed decadent, like the opium-addicted narrator and the weary atmosphere of the novel.  What really bothered me was Greene’s portrayal of Pyle, the earnest, blundering American.  I did not fail to hear certain tones of my own voice in his, and this was irritating, even insulting.  Yet I read the book again, and again.

(Incidentally, The Quiet American is one of my favorites.)

Not are Wolff’s old ideas stripped, but nothing replaces them except an unpleasant sense that it is all arbitrary.  He describes his close calls; the most haunting is one that isn’t really “close” in the conventional sense.  Rather, it is close because, when preparing for a specific assignment, the commanding officer put his hand on Wolff’s friend of the same rank rather than on Wolff.  The friend was killed.  Wolff knows that had he been the one standing where his friend was, it would have been him.  Now, this is not an original idea.  Because of this it’s not quite as compelling as This Boy’s Life, but as I expected it was a true pleasure to read.  Wolff the writer has made Wolff the character such an interesting life to follow.

7 thoughts on “Tobias Wolff: In Pharaoh’s Army: Memories of the Lost War

  1. cbjames says:

    Excellent review. This is one of my favorite books and one that I think deserves a much wider readership. I would even argue that this is one of the best books about a soldier’s experience of war around. Like you I wish we had more longer works from Wolff, but he is a master of the short form.

  2. I want to just repeat what CB said.

  3. John Self says:

    I am a fan of Wolff but I do think In Pharaoh’s Army ranks a clear third in his longer fiction, after Old School and This Boy’s Life. I do wonder, however, whether it’s relevant that the UK edition of this book subtitles it, “Memories of a Lost War” as opposed to the US “Memories of the Lost War”?

  4. Trevor says:

    I agree with your ranking of the longer works, John. I enjoyed In Pharaoh’s Army a lot, but it didn’t, to me, contain the depth or craftsmanship of the other two. I’m looking forward to whatever novel he’s currently writing!

    And a fascinating pickup on the difference in titles! I wonder if it was an oversight, but I see a lot of relevance there even if it was an oversight. Vietnam does stand in U.S. history as “the” lost war, for most. Not only “the” to highlight its relevance, but also “the” to restrict the number of wars we’ve think we’ve lost.

  5. Lee Monks says:

    Do we know what he’s currently writing? There are few writers that would prompt more expectation than Wolff. I think Old School is magnificent, as most do.

  6. Trevor says:

    I don’t know what he’s currently writing other than that it is a novel — or, at least I listened to a recent interview in which he said he was currently writing a novel. But he offered no more details. I’d love to know what he’s writing about, if anyone has a clue . . .

  7. gerards says:

    Can anyone give me a title explanation?

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