Early in the novel, Knott tells readers that an Army briefing is an explanation and that “probably, in a certain way, this whole book . . . is a briefing.” His “briefing” is nothing less than a denunciation of the idiocy of war and a vigorous assertion of the value of friendship and love. William Wharton anatomizes the military experience from the point of view of immature soldiers—not, as films so often suggest, battle-hardened, fully grown adults—and the result is anything but an Audie Murphy paean to manhood achieved through combat.
These six soldiers are actually boys who wrestle with their emerging sexuality, desiring yet also fearing sex. Paul Mundy, a devout and aspiring seminarian, leaves his vocation after masturbating and thus breaking his vow of chastity. He is the squad’s conscience yet believes that he is a sinner and unworthy of respect. The others scheme to lose their virginity by purchasing the services of a prostitute before they ship out. Instead, they attract a girl no older than they are who is in mourning over a fiancé killed in the war.
Like all young people, these boys have elaborate plans for their futures. Stan Shutzer intends to rid the world of anti-Semitic Nazis and then set off on a career as an advertising executive in his own agency. Wilkins yearns to return home and start a family, Knott plans to satisfy his impulse to doodle by becoming an artist, and Mel Gordon vows to reject his father’s dental practice for a career as a doctor.
The theme of innocence confronting experience is foremost in the...
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The critical reception of A Midnight Clear was decidedly mixed; some reviewers criticized it as stereotypical and overwritten, while others claimed that it is “destined to become a classic” by “one of the finest writers in English today.” Such divergent points of view actually reveal differing notions about adolescent experience. William Wharton’s accomplishment, among many others, is his ability to penetrate the thoughts and emotions of the young. In his two preceding novels, Birdy (1978) and Dad (1981), Wharton also explores the effects of war, family life, and insanity, and each book is characterized by a compelling voice yearning desperately to communicate the intense emotional lives of its characters. Each work demonstrates that compassion, understanding, and love are the most potent palliatives to an individual’s sense of isolation and desperation. A Midnight Clear is an important addition to such modern antiwar fiction as Erich Maria Remarque’s Im Western nichts Neues (1929; All Quiet on the Western Front, 1929), Ernest Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms (1929), Joseph Heller’s Catch-22 (1961), and Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five (1969).