Fiction: The Greatest Sacrifice

Reviewed by Molly Gloss
Sunday, October 19, 2008


By Ivan Doig

Harcourt. 406 pp. $26

The 11 men alluded to in the title of Ivan Doig's new novel compose the starting football team for fictional Treasure State (Montana) University in its much-heralded undefeated 1941 season. Now, in 1943, 10 of those men are scattered in far-flung theaters of a world war, and the 11th, Ben Reinking, is writing up his teammates' exploits for a military propaganda machine called the Threshold Press War Project -- TPWP, sardonically known as Tepee Weepy.

The story occasionally jumps back to earlier events in Ben's life and to the 1941 football season, in particular a pivotal week before the opening game when the sudden death of a teammate was the catalyst for the so-called "season of the Twelfth Man." But the bulk of the novel follows Reinking as he chronicles his teammates' war experiences -- and, when necessary, their deaths -- for publication in newspapers around the country.

It's a shapely premise for a novel, allowing Doig a broad canvas on which to paint the breadth and scope of World War II: Carl is bogged down in the forests of New Guinea; Jake pilots Lend-Lease planes from East Base, Mont., north to Russia; "Animal," on a Marine troop ship, hopscotchs from one island beachhead to the next; Sig, in the Coast Guard, patrols the Puget Sound shore; Moxie bosses an anti-aircraft gun pit in Antwerp; Nick serves on a destroyer in the Pacific; and Dexter is confined to a conscientious objector camp in the north Montana woods. Add to these a squadron of Women Air Force Service Pilots -- WASPs -- assigned to East Base, ferrying military aircraft north to Canada, and nearly every military operation is in play.

Scenes range from the jungles of Guam to the Butte du Lion of Waterloo, but the story returns again and again to East Base, Mont., where Doig, not surprisingly, is at his most lyrical, evoking the landscape of Ben Reinking's (and Doig's own) childhood. "Wheatfields winter-sown and fallow stretched below like checkered linoleum laid to the wall of the Rockies. There to the west he could pick out the long straight brink of Roman Reef and its dusky cliff, and the snake line of watercourse that would be English Creek. Gros Ventre, though, held itself out of sight beneath its cover of trees."

English Creek and the town of Gros Ventre are familiar place names in Montana's Two Medicine country that Doig first imagined for his trilogy about the McCaskill family, novels that are still perhaps his best-known works: English Creek, Dancing at the Rascal Fair and Ride with Me, Mariah Montana.

The Eleventh Man is more wide-ranging and plot-heavy than those earlier works. Statistical probability means nine of the 10 on the "Supreme Team" should survive, but those odds are neither a guarantee nor a consolation; as the novel opens, two of the team are already in their graves, and another has lost a leg, fighting in Sicily. Soon, Ben Reinking is writing a third obituary, and then a fourth. As one by one the men perish, the novel takes on a growing sense of doom and inevitability.

Ben, on temporary assignment at East Base, falls for the WASP commanding officer, Cass Standish, and their love affair casts its own dark shadow: Cass is a married woman with a husband serving in Guam. Mysteries underlie both the season of The Twelfth Man and the fateful roll call of deaths reported in Ben's Tepee Weepy dispatches. There are lengthy scenes of battle: the invasion of Guam, the battle of Leyte Gulf, the bombardment of Antwerp, all described in historical detail.

Yet this is not a novel with a strong sense of suspense or dramatic complication. Most of the deaths befalling the "Supreme Team" happen off stage, relayed to Ben and to us after the fact; and we're almost halfway into the book before something occurs that puts Ben himself in peril. For a war novel taking place on such a wide, dangerous field, the book is remarkably quiet. Doig is known for his rich imagining of local American history and the nuances of human relationships, and this is a book that deliberately keeps its attention on the places where war intersects with those less dramatic themes.

He is also sometimes called old-fashioned, which can be either criticism or approbation, depending on your point of view; and granted, it's sometimes hard to distinguish nostalgia from careful, thoughtful avoidance of cynicism. There are a few cringe-inducing moments in The Eleventh Man, especially in the romance between Ben and Cass. "She flicked him the urgent smile that showed the irresistible tiny gap between her front teeth, and he melted like a schoolboy and knew it. Deeply and rigorously they kissed again, running their hands silkily here and there, as if keeping track of everything in the book of hotel-room romance."

But The Eleventh Man vividly evokes a prior time and way of being. It takes a serious view of war and the practitioners of war, and looks hard at the meaning of heroism. And not incidentally, it contains enough loose threads to hint at a sequel, which will be good news to Doig's many loyal readers. ยท

Molly Gloss is the author of several novels, including most recently "The Hearts of Horses."

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