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Turvey Summary

(Critical Guide to British Fiction)

From the moment of his induction into the Canadian army in June, 1942, until his triumphant scurry out of it in June, 1945, Private Thomas Lead-beater (Tops) Turvey’s life is determined by two forces: his desperate hope to join his best friend Gillis MacGillis (Mac) MacGillicuddy in the Kootenay Highlanders regiment, and the whimsy, accidents, and mistakes which govern an army apparently intent on frustrating his quest. Throughout interminable psychological interviews, postings, and escapades in Canada and later overseas in England, Belgium, and Holland, Turvey maintains his nearly maniacal good cheer and shaky innocence. By the end of World War Il, he emerges as a wounded but still active twenty-three-year-old combatant in the wars among and between classes, nations, and psyches.

Turvey was scarcely a naif when he first tried to join the air force and army in 1939. A child of the Depression, which struck western Canada particularly hard (Turvey is from British Columbia), he left school at sixteen to work as a chokerman, bucker, striker, scurfer, and pouncer. This variegated experience might suggest the picaro, or likable rogue of the episodic picaresque novel, but Turvey lacks the requisite shrewdness. His progress through military bureaucracy seems at first a paper chase; he is the victim of misrouted files, inept examiners, and dubious diagnoses. As a result, he serves variously as a security guard, infantry trainee, driver, waiter, night fireman, runner, batman, and potential officer. Patterning his aimless postings are three stays in the hospital: in Canada, after an accident in basic training; in Belgium with dysentery; and in England with diphtheria. Yet Turvey’s own guileless enthusiasm inevitably leads him into the arms of the Provost Corps: he is court-martialed for being Absent Without Leave, put on charge for drunkenly wandering into a mine field, and condemned to the euphemistically named Special Pioneer Detachment for machine-gunning his greatcoat (he thought it was a German paratrooper).

The other side of this reciprocating action is reflected in Turvey’s major and minor triumphs, from the optimism of his enlistment to the glee of his discharge, both in Toronto. His search for active service comes full circle, as the structure of the novel’s nineteen episodes makes clear. Turvey’s physical and psychological movement encompasses four phases. In Canada, his attempt to find Mac and the Kootenay Highlanders is the matrix for the first six alternating episodes: he enlists, then marks time; he undergoes basic training, then is hospitalized; he becomes a security guard, then is court-martialed. In England, the second phase, similar cycles hold for the next four episodes: he stumbles into a mined tank-testing field, then accidently comes across Mac, who introduces him to Peggy; he is thrown into the brig for disgracing himself (he mistook an officer’s room for the latrine), then performs brilliantly if...

(The entire section is 718 words.)