Tobias Wolff has earned a considerable reputation as a short-story writer as a result of his collections: In the Garden of the North American Martyrs (1981) and Back in the World (1985). The Barracks Thief, his first attempt at a longer narrative, met with immediate critical success, winning the prestigious PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction. A fragmented piece that shifts its focus and juggles narrative voice, it is the work of a distinguished short-story writer now testing his strength as a novelist. Although its wonderful moments ultimately do not cohere as satisfyingly as one might hope, it nevertheless achieves a powerful impact.
The Barracks Thief breaks down into various clearly defined sections. The first, written from an omniscient point of view, describes the anxiety generated in the Bishop household when Guy, the father, leaves his family to run off with another woman. From an initial preoccupation with Guy’s sense of guilt, the narrator gradually begins to focus on the two teenage Bishop boys, Philip and Keith, and their reaction to their parents’ breakup.
Keith deals with his father’s leaving by crying a lot. Philip internalizes his trouble, becoming surly and occasionally brutal, belittling his brother’s emotionalism and scorning his father. Philip’s grades begin to suffer, and when he enrolls in a junior college, he finds himself uninterested in the work. Some marines he meets give him the idea of enlisting in the armed forces. When one day he finds the marine recruiting office closed, he opts for the army instead.
Wolff then shifts to a section narrated in Philip’s own voice. Soon after Philip is sent to Fort Benning for training, his mother informs him that Keith has disappeared from home, most likely to San Francisco. Philip rejects his mother’s plea for him to go on leave and try to find his younger brother. One begins to sense that the army is a kind of haven for him, a place where he hopes to salve the wounds that his father’s leaving caused him.
After jump school, Philip is sent to Fort Bragg, North Carolina. There, on the Fourth of July, he finds himself on special duty with two other neophyte paratroopers, Lewis and Hubbard. In a sense, this pair of young soldiers offers a mirror image of Philip and his brother. Lewis, a redneck Kentucky braggart, seems to have dealt with emotional turmoil by denying its existence; Hubbard is the more sensitive, the more honest, the more easily wounded.
This trio’s special duty is to guard a remote munitions dump, to “shoot to kill” should anyone so much as touch the fence around the place. Philip passes the long afternoon talking with Hubbard, who misses his friends and feels dissatisfied with what the army has to offer. Lewis’ conversational style is more aggressive, consisting mostly of boasts about sexual conquests.
The dull day suddenly becomes fraught with tension when two men, one of them a deputy sheriff, show up at the dump, asking the boys to leave. It seems that a brush fire has sprung up, and they are in serious danger. Lewis, however, remembering his orders, has no intention of leaving, and when one of the men dares to lay his hand on the fence between them, Lewis almost fires his gun. At first unsure of their response, Philip and Hubbard find themselves excited by Lewis’ skewed idea of duty. The two men drive off, leaving the boys in danger—but the fire never does reach them.
The Fourth of July episode creates a bond among the three young soldiers, felt strongly as they confront a common enemy—a crowd of hippie protesters. Then, unexpectedly, the camaraderie of the three soldiers is broken apart by a series of thefts inside their barracks. First, a corporal’s wallet is stolen, next a man’s fatigue pants. Suspicion runs rampant among the unit. Then one night, while taking a shower, Hubbard glimpses someone stealing his pants off a hook, tries to stop the theft, and receives a serious blow to the nose. Talking with him afterward, Philip discovers that back at home, Hubbard’s best friends have just been killed in a car crash. Hubbard’s misery—over the crash and his broken nose separates him from Philip and isolates him from the...