The Barracks Thief
It is the mid-1960’s. When Philip Bishop’s father leaves his mother for another woman, Philip’s reaction is to deny his own anguish. At high school, his grades drop. He does manage to get accepted by a junior college, but he is unhappy there. One day, after a tense talk with his estranged father, Philip walks down to the marine recruiting office, finds it closed, and enlists in the army instead.
Philip finds that he is happier with the regimentation of army life than with the confusion of family problems. At Fort Bragg on the Fourth of July, he is assigned to patrol a munitions dump with two young soldiers, Lewis and Hubbard. Hubbard is an honest, vulnerable boy who would much rather be back home racing cars. Lewis, on the other hand, is blustery, highly charged, and eager to prove himself a tough, courageous soldier.
The remainder of the novel deals with this trio of characters: with a potentially violent incident at the munitions dump that draws the three together and with an unexpected development at the barracks--a series of petty thefts--that pulls them apart. Wolff offers a variety of points of view, taking readers into the minds of various characters and out again, to illustrate the divisive tensions generated by the barracks thefts.
A writer whose reputation has soared in the mid-1980’s, Tobias Wolff is known primarily for his short stories. Here, in his precise, honest style, Wolff understatedly etches the family tensions that drive Philip Bishop to enlist. The novel builds powerfully with the incident at the munitions dump. Once the thefts begin, however, and Wolff enters into the thief’s psychology, the novel loses its focus. It begins to seem overloaded and underrealized, as if it were two or three sketches strung together. Ultimately, it...
(The entire section is 735 words.)