The Barracks Thief, by Tobias Wolff


The Barracks Thief is a novella of about a hundred pages; with normal size font and spacing I suspect it would be more like 75. So it’s pretty short even for a novella, more like a moderately long short story. Which makes sense, since Wolff is primarily a short story writer.

Wolff takes many of his stories from real life. I’m not sure if he experienced incidents very close to what is depicted in The Barracks Thief, but certainly in broad terms there is overlap with his life. One of the main characters—sort of the narrator; that’s a structural oddity I’ll get to shortly—spends his formative years in the Pacific Northwest (Seattle) and is the product of a broken marriage who went on to enlist in the Army in the Vietnam era, all of which is true of Wolff.

The story is about three new soldiers—Bishop, Hubbard, and Lewis—at Fort Bragg training to be paratroopers and preparing to be sent to Vietnam. They are assigned to guard an ammunition dump one night. During the night they are warned by a civilian official that it is threatened by an approaching forest fire and that they really need to evacuate. They react indecisively, but in the end opt to angrily stand their ground and drive the civilian away, not wanting to disobey orders and not wanting to appear cowardly in front of their fellows, even at the risk of their lives.

After they return to the base, there are a series of petty robberies, making all the men suspicious of each other. The thief is actually revealed well before the end of the book, so it doesn’t really read like a mystery.

Instead I think it’s just a psychological study of these men and what stress and fear bring out in them.

The Barracks Thief solidifies my high opinion of Wolff as a writer. At best I would put it around the middle of his stuff that I have read, but that’s pretty darn good.

What I appreciate about him is that his characters are psychologically complex in the way that real people are, and their decisions and actions only make sense to the limited extent that those of real people tend to.

For instance, it would certainly be possible to give capsule descriptions of all the main characters in The Barracks Thief that makes them sound stereotypical, but in so doing you would be missing much of the value in Wolff’s writing.

It’s true that a person might be, in some respects, kind of like what you’d expect someone raised in poverty to be. Or the same with a person whose parents experienced a bitter divorce, a frustrated young virgin wanting to get laid, a kid scared about being sent to Vietnam, etc., etc. But no real person is truly explainable in terms of one or more simplistic traits like this.

The Barracks Thief reflects this. Its characters do things that only sort of make sense relative to the little bit we know about them. We don’t have an encyclopedic knowledge of every characteristic of theirs, every influence they are under, so we have to be content with only very partial explanations of their choices. (And maybe even if we did know everything there is to know about them, there would still be some irreducible free will or irrationality or something about humans that means they’ll never be quite fully predictable and understandable.)

So, for instance as far as the motivations of the thief, in the end we can kind of say, “OK I see why he’s messed up, why he was willing to do something that even he regards as wrong, what he intended to do with the money he stole,” and so on, but only to a very limited extent. That is, certainly it’s not the case that he does what he does spontaneously for no reason whatsoever, but if you’re looking for an “ah ha!” moment that makes it all make sense and ties everything together, you won’t find it here. Not because Wolff is being coy and hiding some things from the reader, but because that’s not the way human motivation and such works.

The structural peculiarity I mentioned is that two parts of the novella are narrated in the first person by Bishop, the one from Seattle, and two parts are written in the third person.

Maybe in one or more early drafts Wolff wrote the story from the perspective of one of the characters in it, and in one or more others wrote it from the perspective of an omniscient narrator, and then decided at some point that rather than go with one or the other it would be better to switch back and forth. I don’t know.

I’m not sure that it succeeds or fails. I’m having trouble imagining the same story but with a consistent narrator, and then comparing.

It may be that it makes less difference than I would have expected. That is, I suspect I wouldn’t have experienced the story as it is, the story all told from Bishop’s perspective, or the story all told from an omniscient perspective, significantly differently, but I’m not sure.

I didn’t find it distracting or anything negative like that.

It’s just interesting that this seems to be so rare. I can’t think of another novel or short story off the top of my head that switches narration style like this. (As far as nonfiction, there’s Norman Mailer’s The Armies of the Night, so at least I can think of one there.)

Certainly there are stories where one type of narration is embedded within another. Like, a story might be told in the third person, and then whole chapters will be quotations of someone relating something in the first person, or letters written in the first person, but that’s different.

Anyway, a thumbs up for The Barracks Thief.


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