The Barracks Thief
by Tobias Wolff (1984)
Ecco (2004)
112 pp

To continue on my project to read Tobias Wolff I chose his “other” “novel,” The Barracks Thief. I put “other” in quotation marks because due to Wolff’s own repudiation of his first novel Ugly Rumors, this and Old School are considered the only two novels he’s written. I put “novel” in quotation marks because this is really a novella, in some ways much more closely related to his short stories than to Old School.

The Barracks Thief begins by introducing Guy Bishop, basically a failure of a man (when Boeing was hiring anyone, he they still fired him), who will eventually cave in from the weight of an affair and leave his wife and two sons. But in the first lines of the book, Wolff presents Guy from a contrasting perspective, in a moment of deep intimacy:

When his boys were young, Guy Bishop formed the habit of stopping in their room each night on his way to bed. He would look down at them where they slept, and then he would sit in the rocking chair and listen to them breathe. He was a man who had always gone from job to job, and, even since his marriage, woman to woman. But when he sat in the dark between his two sleeping sons he felt no wish to move.

When he can no longer stay, he seems to most deeply regret the effect his leaving would have on his family, particularly on his wife — she’ll be so lonely without him, it will be very hard for her raising these two boys on her own, etc.

Philip did learn to get along without his father, mainly by despising him. His mother held up, too, better than Guy Bishop had expected. She caved in every couple of weeks or so, but most of the time she was cheerful in a determined way. Only Keith lost heart. He could not stop grieving. He cried easily, sometimes for no apparent reason. The two boys had been close; now, even in the act of comforting Keith, Philip looked at him from a distance. There was only a year and a half between them but it began to seem like five or six. One night, coming in from a party, he shook Keith awake with the idea of having a good talk, but after Keith woke up Philip went on shaking him and didn’t say a word. One of the cats had been sleeping with Keith. She arched her back, stared wide-eyed at Philip, and jumped to the floor.

“You’ve got to do your part,” Philip said.

Keith just looked at him.

“Damn you,” Philip said. He pushed Keith back against the pillow. “Cry,” he said. “Go ahead, cry.” He really did hope that Keith would cry, because he wanted to hold him. But Keith shook his head. He turned his face to the wall. After that Keith kept his feelings to himself.

There is more emotion and narrative packed into the first few pages of The Barracks Thief than in many novels of any size. The fracture in the family is swift, but we feel its depth in such moments when we see Philip just keep shaking Keith. The effects of this hard childhood will reverberate through the book even though the book takes place primarily in a barracks where Philip is preparing for a tour in Vietnam. Though we leave Guy Bishop, the first character we met, in a moment of intimacy, in the first sentence of the book, there is no sudden lurch in the narrative as it moves to other subjects; it flows smoothly from one moment to the next, the first pages echoing in the background.

After briefly watching Phillip and Keith grow older, we move to the barracks for the remainder of the novel, and get a shift in perspective as Phillip becomes our narrator. As the new guy at the barracks Philip hesitates to be seen too much with the two other new guys, Lewis and Hubbard. If they group together, they’ll forever be “the new guys.” However, on the Fourth of July the three of them get placed on guard duty together. This is not the typical assignment, though. They drive several miles from the barracks to an ammunition dump. They are to shoot to kill anyone who gets too close. When their commanding officer leaves, we get to see them settle in and start to get familiar with each other. Sometime during the night, a truck approaches, and a man gets out to speak with them:

“Okay, mister,” Hubbard said, “we’re all here.”

“Bet you’d rather be someplace else, too.” He smiled at us. “Terrible way to spend the holiday.”

None of us said anything.

 The man stopped smiling. “We have a fire,” he said. He pointed to the east, at a black cloud above the trees. “It’s an annual event,” the man said. “A couple of kids blew up a pipe full of matches. Almost took their hands off.” He turned his head and barked twice. He might have been laughing or he might have been coughing.

“So what?” Lewis said.

The man looked at him, then at me. I noticed for the first time that his eyes were blinking steadily. “This isn’t the best place to be,” he said.

Thus begins a very tense interchange between the man, apparently trying to save their life from the fire, and the three new soldiers, trying to act their roles with their guns. They surprise themselves, and are exhilarated by, their capacity for violence now that it is expected of them. Naturally, after such a transformative event, the three new boys become much closer.

The book again, after this additional intensely emotional episode, shifts gears. Someone in the barracks begins stealing money from his fellows. It’s very disturbing that an individual within such a tight group could steal from those with him in these terrible circumstances. It has a bad effect on everyone, but a particularly troubling effect on the new recruits.

Because the stealing was something new, and I was new, I felt accused by it. No one said anything, but I felt in my heart that I was suspected. It made me furious. For the first time in my life I was spoiling for a fight, just waiting for someone to say something so I could swing at him and prove my innocence. I noticed that Lewis carried himself the same way — swaggering and glaring at everyone all the time. He looked ridiculous, but I thought I understood. We were all breathing poison in and out. It was a bad time.

In its ability to shift from one momentous scene to the next without throwing the reader, The Barracks Thief reminded me of Old School. I love that Wolff lets his works go where they will. Despite this appearing loose, though, it is actually a very tightly structured novel. In it we get a variety of situations dealing with a variety of characters, including a prostitute I haven’t even introduced here.

Groups come together and break down, and in breaking down we see that they were never really on the same page at all. But those two forces — the ones that pull people together and the ones that drive people apart — are wonderfully rendered in this fascinating novella.

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