A Midnight Clear is a warm, large-hearted novel about a gruesome subject—warfare—and the ways in which that experience transcends time and indelibly marks its participants. There is no question that the work is a serious attempt at the demystification of heroism and a demonstration of the futility of killing. Nevertheless, the novel also asserts the saving grace of the human spirit and the ways in which true heroism emerges from unselfish, caring concern for others.
The book is divided into six chapters that trace the experiences of a group of soldiers on a reconnaissance mission in the Ardennes Forest in December, 1944. The events are conveyed through the perspective of a subjective narrator, the protagonist Will Knott, who gives the reader a privileged view into his mind and heart and those of his five compatriots. Knott is a born storyteller, although he is unaware of his abilities and claims that he has “a penchant for telling true stories no one can believe,” thus preparing the reader for a sensational tale. Knott punctuates his recounting with brief asides to the audience and glimpses into events that transpire after the central ones of the narrative.
Knott and his colleagues are the survivors of a squad that was attacked in Saarbrücken, Germany. These young men were abruptly dropped at the front although they were originally recruited to be educated at universities because of their superior intelligence. Their division...
It is easy to suspect, after reading William Wharton’s three brilliant novels, that the author is gradually working his way through fictionalized treatments of the fundamental events in his own life. Birdy (1979), Dad (1981), and A Midnight Clear all share an authenticity and concreteness that seems to have been born in experienced reality. This is not to say that these novels are at all unimaginative or prosaic in form or content. They are works of the imagination of the highest order, yet they also possess that peculiar resonance characteristic of works that have a special significance for the creator.
Perhaps a reader would be less inclined to turn to the novels themselves for biographical insights if more were known about “William Wharton.” As it is, not even the true name of the pseudonymous author has been revealed to the public that has come to anticipate with pleasure and growing respect each successive work of his fiction. The visual precision of Wharton’s prose, as well as his frequent concern with painting and art, has led to the rumor that Wharton is or has been a professional artist.
Wharton’s three novels are all notably original, yet they also are solidly in the long tradition of the American realistic novel. They are poetic, but not “pretty”; artful, but not “artistic”; profound without being pretentious. Each book obviously was felt and thought about for a long time before it was put on paper, and as a result, the three novels are the mature products of a mature vision. In each case, the form perfectly matches—and complements—the book’s content. The technique displayed is impressive, yet not intrusive. It functions to advance the story and to convey the emotional and intellectual purpose of the author without distracting the reader. The fact that the prose does not, as a rule, call attention to itself, however, does not mean that it is casually wrought. Wharton writes some of the cleanest, most graceful and elegant prose being published in America today. One must return to the best work of F. Scott Fitzgerald or Paul Horgan to discover prose that is at once so pure, so beautiful, and so effective.
A Midnight Clear is the shortest of the three novels Wharton has published thus far, but it is by no means the least important. In fact, the three novels seem to complement one another, as if they were meant to stand together as a trilogy. Certainly, each one seems to be an important part of a larger vision that the author is gradually exploring. Through these novels, the memories and experiences of the characters (of the author, perhaps?) become, in a sense, part of one’s own experience of life, and thus—as is the case with only the most remarkable literature—become a permanent part of one’s memory.
In Birdy, Wharton explored the labyrinthine complexities of the adolescent mind. In Dad, he laid open the half-hidden relationships and pains of the American family, particularly revealing the agony of parent-child relationships. Finally in A Midnight Clear, Wharton explores young manhood confronting its own suddenly realized and unwelcome vulnerability. All three novels deal with the fundamental issues of life and death, love and responsibility, fear and courage, ambition and failure, yet they are not “message” novels any more than Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina (1873-1877) or War and Peace (1868-1869) are message novels. Other contemporary writers may make more of a splash in the media, but in only four years, William Wharton has quietly established himself as one of America’s major contemporary novelists.
A Midnight Clear takes place in December of 1944,...