This novel, the third by the author of "Birdy," tells the story of a six-man squad of American soldiers, four of them mere teen-agers, who are caught deep in the Ardennes Forest in December of 1944. They are exceptionally bright youngsters who had originally been put in the Army Specialized Training Program Reserve -- "We were sent directly to universities, and were to be given our basic training when we came of age, then sent back to the university" -- but were rushed into combat and now find themselves assigned to occupy a vacant chateau, from which they are to fan out into the forest in search of a German outpost.

They have already had a bitter taste of war: Their original squad of 12 has been cut in half in a previous battle. This terrible experience, compounded by their shared contempt for what they perceive as the limited intelligence of their superior officers, has united them in a hatred for the war and a determination not to ape the behavior of "the crazies who like wars." They refuse to curse or otherwise to conform to the exaggeratedly masculine military style: "We want to make it clear we are not actually part of this army. We're princely orphans left on the wrong doorstep, maybe bastards of the blood."

The voice is that of the narrator, Will Knott, nicknamed "Won't," who turns 19 during the novel's brief course. Following the decimation of his squad, he has been promoted to sergeant. But the real leader of the group is Paul Mundy, who is known as "Father" because he dropped out of a Catholic seminary and whose mother sends him cookies: "Father considers these cookies an act of love. They are. He's the one guy we never hound for seconds but he passes them out anyway. It's almost as if he's giving communion; one at a time, carefully unwrapped and handed to you directly." There is also, for good measure, a character named Vance Wilkins whose nickname is "Mother," because he is forever "bugging us about leaving things around or not cleaning out mess kits and canteen cups."

To quote a snappy exchange from an old Danny Kaye movie: "Get it?" "Got it!" "Good!" What's going on in "A Midnight Clear" is religious allegory, laid on with a trowel the size of a bulldozer. It's a modern version of the story of nativity, crucifixion and resurrection, with symbols and metaphors that positively glow in the dark; it seems to have been written for people who move their lips when they read. Consider, for example, the book's denouement, which follows Father's death in what had been planned as a peaceful meeting with a small band of German soldiers. The devoted squad members are transporting his body back to American lines when, in order to escape the enemy, they decide to disguise themselves as a Red Cross team:

"First we paint white circles on our helmets with the whitener. We slip on the snowsuits. Then I draw a stencil of a cross on one of my K ration boxes. I cut it out with a bayonet. Next comes the hardest part. We turn Mundy over. When we press down on him, blood comes out of his mouth from his lungs. I soak some of it up on a pad from Wilkins' aid kit, the last one we have, and I use it to stipple red crosses on the helmets and on the sleeves of the snowsuits. The blood is thick, viscous, dark, but mixed with whitening it comes out red. I almost vomit twice in the process but convince myself Father wouldn't mind. Maybe we're violating the temple of the Holy Ghost but it's in a good cause, us. With the white circles and the blood, there's almost something of a mass going on, too."

What's most astonishing about this pious twaddle is not its simple-mindedness but the utter solemnity with which Wharton wallows in it. He seems, against all the evidence, to believe that this seventh-grade symbolism is somehow profound, and he heaves it at the reader almost entirely without relief. Perhaps "A Midnight Clear" will prove edifying reading for early adolescents, but it is quite impossible to believe that any adult reader will have the stomach for its shopworn, self-righteous preachifying.