William Wharton’s third novel, published in 1982. I read a William Morrow edition with terrible-smelling ink and cheap pages (seriously, buy a different used edition if you get this one).
1.5 out of 5 stars.
Times Read: 2
Seen the Movie: Yes. And, if memory serves, it’s better than the book.
Six American soldiers are stationed at an abandoned chateau in the winter of 1944. German soldiers make contact, wanting to surrender but needing it to look like they were captured in a fight.
We have another Christine (review) on our hands: A book I loved in high school and struggled through as a thirty-something.
I can tell you exactly why I liked it at fifteen-years-old: this is a sentimental, borderline-precious, undemanding War Is Bad story. We have a kind, highly intelligent (or so he keeps telling us), sensible young man as our lead. His friends are kind, highly intelligent men. These guys are so nice, they pay a woman for sex, then spend half the night talking to and consoling her! They’re also geniuses at bridge – 15% of the book hinges on you understanding the terminology of the game. And they never curse! They don’t smoke! They’re gentlemen, even in war. What minds! What men!
Nothing about A Midnight Clear works for me now. It’s written in first person, present tense (God knows when this style started bothering me, but it takes a damn good author to sell me on it now). And Wharton doesn’t use a single dialogue attribution in the book. Not one. He lets us know who’s speaking by having characters use each other’s names incessantly, which feels incredibly unnatural (How often do you use your co-workers names mid-conversation?).
Wharton variously refers to his characters by first names, last names, and nicknames and gives them few distinguishing qualities. At times, I thought there were eight to ten men in the main group and it took until the end of the book to be sure there were only six. (This is coming from someone who can keep war casts in The Thin Red Line, Catch-22 and Band of Brothers relatively straight.)
And (she continued hysterically), the horrible events of the story could have been avoided if one piece of information was shared with one character. Five of the Americans decide not to tell the sixth that the Germans want to surrender. Why? They think it will cause him more stress. Why? I don’t know. You’d think the nervous American would be relieved to know that the nearby Germans aren’t out to kill them. It’s like a romantic comedy plot, for God’s sake.
To those ASTPRers who never reached majority
…We need you now.
The Army Specialized Training Program (ASTP) was a military training program instituted by the US Army during World War II to meet wartime demands for both junior officers and soldiers with technical skills. Conducted at more than 222 American universities, it offered training in such fields as engineering, foreign languages, and medicine.
Entry requirements were high: a minimum of 115 (later 120) on the Army OCT-X3 Examination for Officers Candidate School, a Stanford-Binet-type IQ test, compared to 110 for OCS candidates. All new soldiers were required to complete 13 weeks of infantry basic training before being assigned to a college campus.
On page 17, Wharton explains that ASTPR means Army Specialized Training Program Reserve. On page 13, he calls the IQ test AGCT.
The six main characters in A Midnight Clear, including the narrator, scored high on the OCT-X3 Examination [“Our squad has one hell of a lot of intelligence but not much reconnaissance.” (p.15)].
With failed priest Mundy’s encouragement to the crew not to swear and future-doctor Gordon not letting them smoke, we have a squad of genius, non-swearing, non-smoking WWII soldiers and I can’t stand any of them.
I’m torn between running after him and not deserting the post. After all, I am a sergeant of the guard; can you believe that? I don’t.
We’re playing a unique version of Hansel and Gretel with strip poker overtones; or maybe something out of Atalanta’s race.
Atalanta is a character in Greek mythology, a virgin huntress, unwilling to marry, and loved by the hero Meleager. When Atalanta’s father, King Iasus, wanted her to marry, Atalanta, uninterested in marriage, agreed to marry only if her suitors could outrun her in a footrace. Those who lost would be killed. Many young men died in the attempt.
Mother’s one of the oldest in our squad and he’s married. He had his twenty-sixth birthday two days before his baby was born dead. Mundy told me that. Some birthday present!
At this point, it looks like we’re in Vonnegut country and I’m on board. After this skilled summing up of Mother, I expect the same service for all our main characters. Nope. Mother is the sole character in the book that I will have any grip on.
We liberated a violin at Rouen.
Rouen is a city on the River Seine in the north of France. It is the capital of the region of Normandy. Approximately 45% of the city was destroyed in World War II. Areas were destroyed between March and August 1944 just before and during the Battle of Normandy. The city was liberated by the Canadians on August 30, 1944.
When I say lost I mean killed. Nobody in the army ever admits someone on our side is killed. They’re either lost, like Christopher Robin; hit, as in batter hit by a pitched ball, take your base, or they get “it,” as in hide-and-seek, or, maybe “get it,” as with an ambiguous joke.
The doctors have marked me down as a paregoric addict and won’t give me any more.
Paregoric, or camphorated tincture of opium, is a medication known for its antidiarrheal, antitussive, and analgesic properties. The drug is still available in the United States by prescription.
I mention all the above nonsense about my name to give some idea of the wheel spinning that can go on when you have too much brain power concentrated in too small a place.
We’re a covey of nit-picking Talmudic Jesuit Sophists continuously elaborating one unending bead game.
noun – a small party or flock of birds, especially partridge.
a small group of people or things.
Bead game might be another name for mancala (?).
Herman Hess’ The Glass Bead Game (1943) sounds like an amazing book, but I don’t think it’s related.
He’s Van Heflin playing Van Johnson in a war movie with Marlene Dietrich as the Nazi spy.
Van Heflin (1908 – 1971) was an American theater, radio and film actor. He played mostly character parts over the course of his film career, but during the 1940s had a string of roles as a leading man. He won the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor for his performance in Johnny Eager (1942).
Van Johnson (1916 – 2008) was an American film and television actor and dancer who was a major star at MGM during and after World War II. Johnson was a boy-next-door type. He made occasional WWII movies through the end of the 1960s.
 The pre-chateau section of A Midnight Clear works very well. There’s very little dialogue and we spend most of our time in narrator Wont’s head. He acknowledges that we’re in there with him, in the moment:
A word here about Ware while I’m trying to get down the last two forkfuls and mediating my stomach into some kind of operational order.
Then, after the aside about Ware:
That’s a lot to squeeze around two bites and some stomach settling, with Ware standing there tilt-hatted, watching me. I either chew exceptionally slowly, or I think very fast.
But Won’t also acknowledges that this is being written down in the future, which raises some interesting questions about continuity:
I look down on something I’ve seen in dreams at least a thousand times during the past thirty-seven years.
Melvin Gordon is squad health nut; he intends to become a doctor if he lives through the war. (He actually does; both those things.)
He snaps off another of his Robert Taylor glances up from under his eyebrows.
Robert Taylor (1911 – 1969) was an American film and television actor who was one of the most popular leading men of his time. During WWII, he served in the United States Naval Air Corps.
I’d spent the morning peering through drifting whiteness, trying to keep from breathing on the lenses. It was beautiful, even the black blossoms of mortar (…) Now, when I look at the Brueghels in Vienna, I remember my nineteenth birthday.
Eight Dutch/Flemish Brueghels (of the same family line) are listed on Wikipedia. “The Bruegel room” in the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna houses paintings by Pieter the elder, Pieter the younger and Jan.
Pieter Bruegel the Elder (~1525 – 1569) was the most significant artist of Dutch and Flemish Renaissance painting, known for his landscapes and peasant scenes. He has several very famous winter scenes.
Pieter Brueghel the Younger (1564 – 1638) was a Flemish painter, known for numerous copies after his father Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s work as well as his original compositions.
Jan Brueghel the Elder (1568 – 1625) was a Flemish painter and draughtsman. He was the son of Pieter Brueghel the Elder. (None of his famous pieces appear to be winter scenes that Wont would be referencing.)
“You can see him yourself if you stand up.”
This is not the kind of thing anybody who likes being alive does.
 I mentioned in my introduction how Wharton is not consistent with name use (people are called by first, last, or nickname and rarely does the narrative give you the entire name at once for reference). To give you some idea of the confusion this causes, on pages 30 – 31, we get the names:
Only six people are in the scene. Also, without dialogue attributions, it is very hard to know who is saying what.
The cavalry colonel’s beautiful blonde daughter, in total décolletage.
noun – a low neckline on a women’s dress or top.
a woman’s cleavage as revealed by a low neckline.
Waiting is 99 percent of soldiering.
He’s loaded down with all the military furbelows.
noun – a gathered strip or pleated border of a skirt or petticoat.
verb – (literary) – adorn with trimmings.
He starts singing, grunting, humming “The Jersey Bounce.”
“Jersey Bounce” is a song written by Tiny Bradshaw, Eddie Johnson and Bobby Plater with lyrics by Buddy Feyne. It hit #1 for four weeks in 1942 as an instrumental recorded by Benny Goodman and his orchestra. It was covered by numerous bands and swing orchestras. The tune was popular as the source of aircraft nicknames during World War II.
They were wearing fresh underwear, had rubbed in enough Mum to make a smeary mess in their armpit hairs.
Mum was the first brand of commercial deodorant. Containing a zinc compound as its active ingredient, it was developed and patented by Edna Murphey in Philadelphia in 1888. It was named for the term “mum” meaning “to keep silent.”
 Won’t goes into a flashback using past tense (“Morrie and I had decided to enjoy the privacy of the room.”). Then, after a couple of pages, he switches back to present tense while still in the “past.”:
It’s past midnight when Shutzer and Gordon come back. I’m asleep; I’m sure Morrie is, too.
It’s a strange choice by Wharton. But many stylistic choices in this book are strange to me.
“I have a rubber and a pro kit you can use if you want.”
Prophylactic Kit. According to David Moore’s upload to prezi.com (“The Prophylactic Kit and WWII”):
The “pro kit” contained ointment, a soap saturated cloth, cleaning tissue, and direction sheet. Some later kits did contain a condom, but they were few in numbers.
 I’m glad your sister’s also a genius, Wont, but I can’t figure this out:
I tried smuggling a message home to tell where we were. I asked Joan, my sister, to give my love to Gertrude, Moe and Jack. I knew she’d figure it out and she did.
How is “Gertude, Moe and Jack” code for Ohmsdorft and/or Germany?
Gertrude and Moe (GerM) could suggest Germany, but that’s as far as I can get.
We can’t do anything against a tank, even with AP.
Armor-piercing, a type of military or navel ammunition.