Wednesday, November 16, 2005

Turow’s WWII Novel Surrenders to Cliché

Turow’s WWII Novel Surrenders to Cliché: New Books

Reviewed by Edward Nawotka

Scott Turow risks deviating from his usual courtroom thriller, to try a World War II spy story in the mold of Alan Furst. “Ordinary Heroes” (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 370 pages, $25) recounts the story of WWII JAG lawyer David Dubin, a Lieutenant in Patton’s army, who in October 1944 is ordered to find and arrest Major Robert Martin, a rogue OSS spy and possible double agent. It’s a mission that mysteriously leads to Dubin being court-martialed with the possibility of execution.

“Ordinary Heroes” begins in the present when Dubin’s son Stanley, a 55-year-old burnt-out journalist (and minor character from 1987s “Presumed Innocent”) discovers among his father’s belongings a cache of letters addressed to a mystery woman and records that reveal Dubin’s heretofore unknown court-martial. Investigating, Stanley tracks down the now elderly lawyer who defended his father and is given a manuscript written by Dubin that explains what happened. “Ordinary Heroes” alternates between Stanley’s present day story and Dubin’s wartime memoir, which makes up the majority of the narrative.

Dubin is the second generation son of Russian immigrants and Jewish socialists. He shortened his name from Dubinsky to mask his identity upon enrolling in a posh Midwestern college and arrives in Europe as an idealist, believing he is serving “a land of equals where everyone deserved to be greeted by only one label—American.” What he finds is a segregated Army where his dogtags are stamped with an “H” for Hebrew and he is warned not to be “the wrong kind of Jew.” It’s only after questioning the integrity of his job, which consisted primarily of court-martialing “Negro” soldiers, Dubin is sent to pursue Martin. The order is issued by General Roland Teedle, an alcoholic rumored to be homosexual, who hates socialists “Because they believe mankind can be good without [God’s] assistance” and opines that “So much of civilization is merely the recovery period between wars.”

On the second page of the book, Dubin vows to “happily remain a lawyer, not a foot soldier.” But just as soon as he tracks down Martin, a man with the charm of William Powell and the courage of Audie Murphy, Dubin is cajoled into joining a mission to blow-up an underground arms depot using a locomotive wired with explosives. Here he meets Gita Lodz, a vampy Polish partisan who will seduce and dupe Dubin, helping Martin repeatedly escape arrest. And when Martin does escape, Dubin pursues both him and Gita, for whom he has fallen, going so far as to make a harrowing low altitude parachute jump into occupied territory to continue the chase.

War fever inevitably infects Dubin (and Turow) who is distracted from his prey by the German army making its last stand at the Battle of the Bulge. For nearly a third of the book, Dubin leads an infantry division in defending the town of Bastogne, Belgium, and stars in a series of cinematic military tableaus, including a bloody Nazi ambush and capture by the SS. Battle hardened, he becomes inured to the stench of war until (cliché alert) he encounters the horrors of the Holocaust first-hand.

As a novel of derring-do, “Ordinary Heroes” delivers plenty of action and romantic interludes. But the book fails outright as a mystery: too early on Turow reveals that Dubin’s court-martial was dismissed and his sentence dropped, and it’s all too obvious how the relationship between Dubin, Martin and, especially, Gita will work itself out.

Although Turow based this novel in part on his father’s experiences as a doctor with Patton’s army, the story itself just seems overly familiar. Anyone that has already seen “Band of Brothers,” which features many similar scenes and settings, will likely experience frequent moments of deja-vu.

If this seems like a surprising direction for the author who made his reputation writing modern legal thrillers, it’s not. Turow has turned to writing polemics. His previous book, 2003s “Ultimate Punishment” outlined his arguments against the death penalty. “Ordinary Heroes,” in addition to being an enjoyable, if hackneyed WWII adventure story, is also a vehicle for Turow to deliver lawyerly disquisitions on war, religion, and patriotism. Unfortunately, all too often Turow’s characters become talking heads who slip into leaden cliché--such as Dubin’s observation that “The general’s names might be remembered by historians, but it was [real soldiers] who would fight the true war,” and Martin’s proclamation, “I thought fascism was the plague. But war is. War is.”—that are bested only by the recent Star Wars prequels.

It’s been fun, but Turow should to the courtroom where he has total command of the milieu.

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