God, we’re ugly; dirty, gangling, baggy; shuffling in a hunching crouch like animals. We’re walking, talking Bill Mauldin cartoons or van Gogh potato eaters.
(p.54 – 55)
Bill Mauldin (1921 – 2003) was an American editorial cartoonist who won two Pulitzer Prizes for his work. He was most famous for his WWII cartoons depicting American soldiers, as represented by the archetypal characters Willie and Joe. He started his cartoons while in the 45th Infantry Division.
The site awon.org has several examples of the Willie and Joe cartoons.
The Potato Eaters (1885) is an oil painting by Vincent van Gogh. (See here.)
We square our mattresses around the fire and spread the quilts over them. We put fart sacks on top.
Military slang for a bed or sleeping bag.
 Some authors sneer at semicolons (Vonnegut), some use them as tools of beauty and clarity (Capote), some overuse and muck up their text in the process:
I crank the phone and tell Shutzer I’ll phone on the hour; I’ve borrowed his watch. I can tell the game’s already started: Stan talks to me as if I’m interrupting; I’m only the war now, getting in the way.
It’s beginning to fall dark fast; the reddish parts of deciduous trees are drifting toward purple; shadows under the pines are almost blue black.
Wharton would have done himself a favor to use more periods. Let some thoughts stand on their own to give them weight. (“It’s beginning to fall dark fast. The reddish parts of deciduous trees are drifting toward purple. Shadows under the pines are almost blue black.”)
I’m trying to decide if it’s better for Wilkens, Gordon and me to stay together, or spread out. I decide we’ll stick it here. This is not so much a decision as what I want to do anyway.
 The dialogue rings false. People speak in blocks of text, overusing each other’s names. A lot of A Midnight Clear reads like a bad play:
“Wait a minute, Shutzer. Are you telling me all this creeping around in the cold, scared, with snow coming down, was only some crazy sauerkraut slurpers making a bed check? I’ll tell you, Stan, if that’s it, they’ve been in this cockeyed war too long.”
“What’s up now, Won’t? You two started building snow castles yet? German misplaced castles on the Rhine?”
“Don’t rile me, Stan; this is your war. I’m only reporting it, right? We said good night, politely as sugar pie. You can go beddy-bye now; it’s been settled. You know, we might just end this war ourselves, privately, out here in our forest. We’ll all move into the chateau together and defend it against the crazies who like wars. Maybe declare ourselves neutrals.”
“You’re sure you’re OK there? Gordon’s been applying his instinctive, humanist mind. It, combined with Miller’s analytic approach, can be deadly on unsolved problems; but nobody’s come up with any answers that make sense. The bad news is neither of them thinks the war’s over. Maybe we need some of your creative, gooey thinking on this project.”
“It could be a trap. I must admit I’m not a big truster of Germans.”
“Now you’re cutting in on my territory, Won’t. I’ll leave the creative business to you but I’m the Kraut hater around here. Don’t forget that.”
“The whole idea’s so wild I’d be sorry the rest of my life if we didn’t try it. Then again, the rest of my life might just be today.”
The scoring on that one’s gotten so complicated you need a mathematical wizard or a Monroe calculator to know who’s winning.
The Monroe Calculating Machine Company was a maker of adding machines and calculators founded in 1912 by Jay Randolph Monroe based on a machine designed by Frank Stephen Baldwin. In the 1940s, Monroe calculators looked something like this.
There is so much talk about bridge. For most of the story, bridge is the main source of drama and plot and I feel stupider and stupider with each conversation. How I wish Wharton tossed one non-genius into this crew to be a viewpoint for us idiots.
Father and I stand there smoking, staring out through the snow, hoping not to see anything. It’s even more complicated than that. We’re desperately wanting to see anything there is to see, but praying there’s nothing there. It can twist the brain.
(p.84 – 85)
“I wasn’t even sure there wasn’t a real Jack Armstrong and Daddy Warbucks.”
Jack Armstrong, the All-American Boy was a radio adventure series which maintained its popularity from 1933 to 1951.
“I’ve made the nine First Fridays three times. I’m guaranteed ‘The Grace of a Happy Death.’ ”
The First Friday Devotions are a set of Catholic devotions to especially recognize the Sacred Heart of Jesus, and through it offer reparations for sins. The devotion consists of several practices that are performed on the first Fridays of nine consecutive months. On these days, a person is to attend Holy Mass and receive communion. The twelfth and final “promise” to someone who has completed the devotions is:
I promise you in the excessive mercy of My Heart that My all-powerful love will grant to all those who shall receive communion on the First Friday in nine consecutive months the grace of final penitence; they shall not die in My disgrace nor without receiving their sacraments; My Divine Heart shall be their safe refuge in this last moment.
The “Grace of a Happy Death” is a concept in Catholicism . According to catholictradition.org:
Final perseverance, a happy death, is no more than the continuance of the state of grace up to the moment of death, or at any rate it is the coincidence or union of death and the state of grace if conversion takes place at the last moment. In short, a happy death is death in the state of grace, the death of the predestinate or elect.
“We have a pronouncement ex cathedra from Father Mundy himself.”
adverb & adjective – with the full authority of office (especially of the Pope’s infallibility as defined in Roman Catholic doctrine).
“Claims [the walls] are genuine seventeenth-century ‘boiserie.’ ”
noun – wooden paneling.
“If you say a novena for somebody, it’s not trading; it’s a free offering.”
noun – (in the Roman Catholic Church) a form of worship consisting of special prayers or services on nine successive days.
Similar to the nine First Fridays (note )?
It’s one of the worst things about a war: you’re either scared shitless, bored to death, hurt or dead.
I’d attach [hairs] to the end of a stick with one of the rubber bands, like Benjamin West and his cat hairs.
Benjamin West (1738 – 1820) was an Anglo-American painter of historical scenes around and after the time of the American War of Independence and the Seven Years’ War.
Nothing on West’s Wikipedia page makes mention of hairs or cat hairs but Benjamin West and His Cat Grimalkin by Marguerite Henry (1947) tells a story of young Benjamin West making brushes out of his cat’s hair. I don’t know if Henry’s story has any basis in truth.
I’m having my usual trouble, noticing how beautiful the world is just when there’s a chance I might be leaving it.
“You could get a job in cowboy movies with a pratfall like that. Tom Mix couldn’t do it better.”
Tom Mix (1880 – 1940) was an American film actor and the star of early Western movies between 1909 and 1935. He was Hollywood’s first Western megastar and helped define the genre as it emerged in the early days of the cinema.
[The snowsuit] makes a sound like Dacron sails when they’re being pulled up.
Polyethylene terephthalate, commonly abbreviated PET or PETE, is the most common thermoplastic polymer resin of the polyester family and is used in fibers for clothing, containers for liquids and foods, thermoforming for manufacturing, and in combination with glass fiber for engineering resins. It may also be referred to by the brand name Dacron. Sailcloth is typically made from PET fibers.
 Wharton’s use of exclamation points seem like a lazy attempt at immediacy and excitement when his words themselves are failing. Three examples from one page:
We’ve just finished our first call-in at ten-thirty when I think I hear something moving on the other side of the road! (…)
There’s something moving around in the brush just inside the trees on the other side of the road, less than forty yards from us!
I’m trying to decide if I should call the chateau. I’m afraid whatever’s out there will hear me; it’s so close!
There’s no book around to read now except one called Forever Amber.
Forever Amber (1944) is a romance novel by Kathleen Winsor (1919 – 2003) set in 17th-century England. It was made into a film in 1947.
Sometimes I can’t force any sense into things; this gets to be a lifelong problem.
We need Judy Garland in a pink frilly dress, or Sonja Henie to come skating along the creek.
Sonja Henie (1912 – 1969) was a Norwegian figure skater and film star. She was a three-time Olympic Champion, a ten-time World Champion and a six-time European Champion. Henie won more Olympic and World titles than any other ladies’ figure skater. At the height of her acting career, she was one of the highest paid stars in Hollywood.
Miller does everything but put one hand between the buttons of his field jacket. He’s Napoleon watching the battle of Borodino.
The Battle of Borodino was a battle fought on September 7, 1812 in the Napoleonic Wars during the French invasion of Russia. The fighting involved around 250,000 troops and left at least 70,000 casualties, making Borodino the deadliest day of the Napoleonic Wars.
It’s a good hole with a fire step.
A step or ledge on which soldiers in a trench stand to fire.
I can’t think of anything to say I could live with.
When I get to Shutzer, his face is white-green; Gordon has his canteen out and is giving him wound tablets.
According to med-dept.com:
Sulfadiazine Tablets (Wound Tablets): For prevention of infection in wounds. Take eight tablets orally, followed by a large amount of water. If sweating has been great or if large amounts of water cannot be taken both with the drug and for 24 hours afterwards, do not take any of these tablets.
(Sulfadiazine is an antibiotic.)
 Wont has spent this book telling us what an elite Paris-street-painting genius he is, then tells us:
The essence of the peasant mind is resentment without courage or initiative to strike back effectively. I’ve learned to live with it.
Peasant mind? All right, sure.
I remember now thinking how somebody had to get something out of all this. I wanted it to be me. And it was.
“Real TS. Dead before we even got back.”
According to “Some Choice Bits of Slang From American Soldiers Serving in WWII” by Rebecca Onion on slate.com, TS stands for “Tough situation”/“Tough shit.”
A Midnight Clear is the most pleasant, calm portrayal of WWII I’ve ever read.
This is not a good thing.
It might work for high schoolers who want to read a Word War II novel but find Catch-22 too intimidating, the way it worked for me all those years ago. But for the rest of you? Not recommended. The writing is pseudo-pretentious (along with the characters) and the dialogue is very bad. The story ends mid-scene after a needlessly stretched-out climax.
This Friday, Gwendy’s Button Box, the new Stephen King and Richard Chizmar… novella? Short story?