Look out your window now, at your ordinary street, your patch of lawn, and imagine soldiers — foreigners or fellow citizens — who want to kill you. Imagine yourself in a battle out by the barbecue grill with firing and dying going on. Meanwhile, the sun shines, the dog goes about its doggy day and there is still dinner to cook as the missiles drop.
It is this surreal juxtaposition of ordinary life and the extremes of war that “In the Wolf’s Mouth” captures so well. In Adam Foulds’s rich and vivid novel of World War II, we see that wars are ordinary and all alike: same blood and boredom, chaos and folly, bravado and heirloom trauma. And, yet, war is also as unique as the experience of each person swept up in the mayhem.
The novel begins in Sicily in 1926, when the Fascists drive a poor shepherd boy, Angilù, down from the hills and force the criminal Cirò Albanese to flee to New York. It tacks, then, to 1942, when the privileged British officer Will Walker longs to make a name in battle. Will craves action, Foulds writes, “with a physical feeling akin to hunger.” It’s his frustrated lot to serve, instead, in safe administrative roles. As Will is forced to compromise the idea of his own superiority, Foulds, who is British, has a delicious time satirizing the casual racism and arrogance of empire Will both embodies and chafes against.
As the young officer heads to North Africa, and then to Sicily, Ray Marfione, an infantryman from New York, is landing on the same shores, both men part of the Allies’ attempt to drive the Nazis out. Ray is the novel’s naive and terrified witness to the gore of war. He sees a leg, “the boot and the shin, whirling towards him.” A fellow soldier drowns “in his bubbling holes.” Ray’s experience — of war’s camaraderie, of longing for comfort and transcendence — carries the emotional weight of the novel, for he has the soul of a poet and too soon realizes that the war has him “enclosed in this sadness. . . . He would never be outside it again.”
Foulds, who has won the Costa Poetry Award and been shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, is a superb stylist. His muscular sentences punch in short bursts or stream in torrents of feeling or action with precise, telling detail. The teeth in a soldier’s parched mouth are “grainy pegs of bone.” Light hurts him “like diamonds crushed into his eyes.”
The war is a kind of character here, too. “War will decide,” one soldier says. “Battle was . . . just acting. Just animals. And this was the whole thing. You killed people with guns and machines, smashed homes to bits.” It seems no accident that passages of “In the Wolf’s Mouth” could apply to the current mire in the Middle East. An Arab doctor scathingly reminds Will, “We are told that Arabs are not fit to run their own countries.” And Will, who studies “The Invasion Handbook,” wonders “if there wasn’t a grain of truth there, if allowing them to run their own affairs might not end in a mess.”
Cirò is one of the many in every war who exploit the mess for his own purposes. When the Americans bring him back home to Sicily as an adviser, he sets out to get what he can. A shepherd like Angilù is hardly a fair match, given the nefarious skills Cirò has perfected on the docks of Manhattan.
One of few women in the novel, an Italian princess named Luisa, plays a pivotal role in the plot, though, as women are often portrayed in war fiction, she’s tangential to its concerns, a voyeur for whom battle is almost romantic. She wants to ask a soldier whether he saw many people killed but then reflects that “there was something wrong in wanting to know, something greedy and obscene.” There is little romance here, not of women or of war; but the obscenities, of bloodshed and destruction, are exposed like the silly “scalded pink genitals” of an officer who has shaved himself to avoid lice.
Foulds weaves the destinies of these characters together in a narrative that carries us along not in the war so much as watching its chaos. The characters’ paths cross, but the stakes of the story depend less on what happens between them than on the randomness and force of war’s trajectory.
“In the Wolf’s Mouth” — the title comes from the Italian expression “In bocca al lupo,” meaning “good luck” — makes clear that luck is all there is to count on during war. The experience of battle is as basic as the animal sounds a soldier makes as the bombs drop (“Nng. Nng God. Nah. Hmm”) and as random as the soldier who thinks of explosions mixing rocks, like in “the stone bowl of his ma — what was it called? — a pestle. Garlic and salt in it. Smash. Her strong round dimpled hand on the stick thing. Smash. Molecules.”
Manning’s novel “My Notorious Life” is out in paperback this month.
IN THE WOLF’S MOUTH
By Adam Foulds
Farrar Straus Giroux. 323 pp. $26