The Barracks Thief by Tobias Wolff

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Summary

(Masterpieces of American Literature)

The Barracks Thief begins with a short prologue introducing the character who will narrate much of the tale. Philip Bishop, the elder son of a marriage that has ended badly, impulsively enlists in the Army, leaving behind his worried mother and vulnerable younger brother. At this point, the story shifts into the first person to recount Philip’s military experiences. Philip meets Hubbard and Lewis when he arrives at Fort Bragg. Ignored by the rest of the company, the three newcomers reluctantly become companions and form a bond when they are assigned to guard an ammunition dump together. They each reveal something about their prior lives at home. Hubbard focuses on his two closest buddies and their shared love of cars. He confesses that he could never kill anyone and worries about being sent to Vietnam. In contrast, Lewis presents himself as a tough guy and experienced womanizer. He makes light of an incident where he hesitated to rappel down a cliff during training exercises. Lewis was particularly offended when the sergeant on duty called him “Tinkerbell.” Their conversation is interrupted by the appearance of a car bearing two local policemen. Warned that a forest fire might ignite the dump, the soldiers rudely turn away the men, and recklessly decide to stand by their post, developing an illusory sense of power and bravery.

Soon after, some men in the company are dispatched to Oakland to await assignments overseas. One day they are assigned crowd-control duty during an antiwar protest and find themselves rattled by facing down people their own age who despise the idea of the Vietnam War. After the protest, Lewis invites the others to a Bob Hope film but they decline. In the following days, three wallets are stolen in the barracks. The third victim of theft is Hubbard, who is punched in the face by his attacker. Although he is not seriously hurt, the injury hits hard because Hubbard has just learned that his two best friends from home were killed in an accident. At this point, the narrative shifts back to third person, and the focus becomes specifically on Lewis, who decides to go to the film by himself. He gets a ride with an elementary teacher who works at the post. The teacher helps him apply calamine lotion to his swollen hand, and they have a quiet moment of connection. Later, during the film, Lewis becomes enraged when the cartoon figure of Tinkerbell appears. He becomes determined to have sex with a woman and ends up with a weary prostitute. After spending one night with her, he becomes the barracks thief in order to pay for return visits. He steals Hubbard’s wallet without knowing whom he has attacked. Opening the wallet, he finds the poignant letter from Hubbard’s mother describing the deaths of his friends. Tossing the wallet away, he keeps the letter, leading to his later capture when the sergeant insists on emptying the pockets of all the men in the barracks.

In the last section of the story, Philip describes Lewis’s collapse when confronted with the crime he had committed against a friend. Readers learn that Lewis receives a dishonorable discharge, while Hubbard eventually deserts the Army. In contrast, Philip goes to Vietnam and is a good soldier and later a better husband than his own father had been. He draws a connection between the suffering face of Lewis and the expressions he has seen on the face of Vietnamese prisoners, and on his brother during his troubled life. Unlike Hubbard and Lewis, he draws some measure of solace in being part of a group and doing the things that society approves.

Summary

(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

Tobias Wolff’s novella-length The Barracks Thief reads more like a long short story than a novel. Consisting of seven brief chapters, it seems at first to be a simple and unassuming story with little or no thematic significance; however, as is often the case with novellas, the more one thinks about the work, the more psychologically and morally complex becomes this exploration of the motivations of three...

(The entire section is 1,365 words.)