Style and Technique
Roth’s style is brisk, pointed, compact, and morally lucid. He masters with unobtrusive authority the sharply observed details of characteristic gestures, such as Grossbart sitting on the edge of Marx’s desk the first time he approaches him, and then, on being ordered to stand on his feet, slipping up to the corner of the desk—“not quite sitting, but not quite standing, either.” Then there is Fishbein, “his long yellow face a dying light bulb” while “his eyelids beat a tattoo.” Captain Barrett is observed by Marx: “His helmet liner squashed down so far on his head that I couldn’t even see his eyes.”
Roth’s ear is even better than his eye. Grossbart and Marx duel in a vernacular charged with caustic, incisive urban idioms stripped to their starkest rhythms. “I owe nobody nothing,” Grossbart shouts in their climactic scene. “I’ve got the right to watch out for myself.” Replies Marx, “For each other we have to learn to watch out, Sheldon.”
Ironies pervade the story. The title phrase, “Defender of the Faith,” mockingly alludes to a traditional obligation of English monarchs. More directly, it refers to the role of religious champion that Marx finds himself filling, no matter how unintentionally. Not only does Sergeant Marx defend the honor of his own heritage by rejecting Grossbart’s advantage mongering, but also he can succeed in restoring the balance of the scales of justice only by using Grossbart’s exploitive skills against him. In lying to Sergeant Wright regarding Grossbart’s thirst for combat, Marx has to “pull a Grossbart,” has to usurp Grossbart’s identity as an unprincipled manipulator. For once, Roth indicates, a worthy end does justify unworthy means.