Jesse's Reviews > In Pharaoh's Army: Memories of the Lost War

In Pharaoh's Army by Tobias Wolff
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Mar 19, 2009

really liked it
Read in March, 2009

** spoiler alert ** Written with the all of the concision and clarity that he brings to his fiction, "In Pharaoh's Army" ascertains Wolff's ability to turn life experiences into dynamic storytelling. Wolff's first memoir - and his most famous book - "This Boy's Life" recounts Wolff's childhood with his itinerate mother and doltishly abusive step-father. And "In Pharaoh's Army" reads as a continuation of "This Boy's Life"; Wolff's feelings of inadequecy and fraudulence appear in their grownup forms in this story as Wolff struggles with the Vietnam war as well as the people he encounters while there.
The memoir picks up where Wolff's novel "Old School" leaves off; and while "Old School" is fiction and thus does not recount Wolff's experiences in prep school with complete accuracy, the themes and characters share an affinity and the story really could be read as one long bildungsroman: starting with "This Boy's Life" continuing with "Old School" and ending with "In Pharaoh's Army". At the end of "Old School" the unnamed narrator enlists in the Army after being expelled for plagiarism, yet "In Pharaoh's Army" begins in Vietnam as Wolff and Sergeant Benet are trying to barter for a color TV for Thanksgiving. However, this is part of the structure of "IPA" which is not chronological, but rather reads like a collection of short stories revolving around one character concerning his experience in the Vietnam War. It reminds one of "The Things They Carried" by Tim O'Brien, another brilliantly heartbreaking collection of stories about Vietnam. Wolff's memoir is not as dark or as painful as O'Brien's, but this might be because O'Brien was in the field more. This isn't to say that Wolff's memoir doesn't contain the horrific stories that seem par for the course when it comes to Vietnam books -especially his descrption of the Tet Offensive - but it seems O'Brien was scarred much more by the memory of the war.
Eventually Wolff does get to the beginning of the story: telling of his experience at the U.S. Army Airborne School: training to be a paratrooper (this section includes the best writing I have ever read about parachuting), graduating 49th out of 49 in Officer Candidate School, and finally attending language school in Washington D.C.: learning Vietnamese. This section offered some levity as we meet Vera and her family, Russian aristocrats with some rather comical peculiarities. Wolff and Vera fight constantly, testing each other's love - pushing the limits. However, the inevitable happens and Wolff is sent to Vietnam assigned to South Vietnam as a U.S. Army consultant to the South Vietnamese Army. Here, Wolff is constantly feeling his ineptitude, failing to believe he is really an officer of the U.S. Army. He also feels the constant fear of death, as most of the time he is the only white person in sight - tall and pale - a perfect target. He relates a few close calls, which in Vietnam means extremely close calls, i.e., shit in your pants kinda close calls (which Wolff actually does, and tells us about it).
This memoir doesn't shed any new light on the already well-lit theme of the Vietnam War, yet as a coming-of-age story (another well-lit theme) it manages to add something. And this really tells of the strength of this book; these themes could easily slide into melodrama, or the alienated cynicism of a young soldier; yet Wolff is a good enough writer, and an honest enough human being to avoid those traps. After returning from the war, Wolff bums around a much-changed San Francisco for a few weeks: drinking and trying to get his bearings back - adjusting to civilian life. He eventually moves in with his father. Oddly, this part of the novel is the most moving (much like the last story in "The Nick Adams' Stories"). As readers of "This Boy's Life" will no doubt remember, Wolff's father is something of a con man. When Wolff arrives, his dad is on parole and has just come down with a cold. Wolff relishes the chance to not only care for his father (who never really cared for him) but also to have a concrete purpose: his first sense of meaning since returning from the war. After his father's convalescence, they begin to hang out, forming a sort of friendly bond - nothing even close to a filial one - drinking and listening to music together arguing about literature. And this seems to suit them best, as it allows them to avoid any sort of responsibility toward the other. Wolff even considers enrolling in school and staying near his father; however, he thinks better of the idea, knowing nothing could come of it except disappointment. But before he leaves, his father reads him the novel "Wind in the Willows" and Wolff immediately recognizes his father in the remorseless protagonist who refuses to live by society's rules, and lies, cheats, and steals to obtain the finer things in life. Wolff allows his father to finish the novel, but leaves soon after.
During another aborted attempt at a relationship with the neurotic Vera, Wolff decides to dedicate himself completely to literature, disciplining himself and learning the sheer dedication needed to become an author. And while Vera doesn't last, his dedication to life as an author does. Through stubborn determination - and a bit of luck - Wolff finds himself attending Oxford in England, where his feelings of inadequacy, that had plagued him since his childhood in "This Boy's Life" surfaces one more time. Yet this time Wolff conquers his fears, beginning with a sense of gratitude, using this as a bose upon which to build a life.
Wolff's writing is not flashy, it's not even difficult, yet to tell this story with this much truth and grace is a feat of near impossibility. The words he uses are not long, and obscure, however, the way he puts them together speaks of a compassion for the human experience. In many ways, Vietnam shaped Wolff; while many soldiers came home scarred and bitter, Wolff found his calling in literature and allowed himself the confidence that came with his gratitude and thanks for the luck he had in surviving such a horrific war. Wolff ends the novel with a last shot: his memories of Hugh Pierce, his irrepressible friend from Jump School. Hugh died in the war, and Wolff knows that in many ways he was given a gift by surviving the war, and that all that he has, and will, experience are things that Hugh was never given a chance to. In this Wolff finally realizes all that he has. And while his childhood was rough and he always yearned to be something bigger and better, he now was okay with just being Tobias Wolff and being alive. So while the Vietnam War took so much from so many - extinguishing lives, crushing dreams - in this case it gave back to one soldier; showing him the true worth of human life, and giving him this rock upon which to build his own.
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