Herewith, a short list of traps awaiting the American novelist writing about World War II: The heartwarming but underimagined bond between GIs of different ethnicities. The pathos of the decapitated doll in the ravaged, thatch-roofed village. The tragically sexy mademoiselle. The tragically elegant madame. The temptation to compose lines like: ”I thought fascism was the plague, but war is. War is.”
Even Scott Turow — author of six muscular legal thrillers — can’t resist the romantic clichés as he moves his latest novel, Ordinary Heroes, from his usual grimy haunts in fictional Kindle County, U.S.A., to the Ardennes, circa 1944. Turow’s unsentimental fictions of the 1980s and ’90s reflected a big-city criminal attorney’s familiarity with the oily nexus of American politics and law, and the hairline moral distinctions between the accused and their attorneys. But in writing about the Good War, Turow, like others before him, goes soft.
Stewart Dubinsky, a bit player from Turow’s 1987 debut, Presumed Innocent, resurfaces here as the narrator. Following the death of his father, David, Stew finds a sheaf of letters that reveal a shocking secret: In 1945, David, a JAG lawyer attached to Patton’s army in Europe, was imprisoned and court-martialed. A month later, with no explanation, he was released.
Fascinated by his ”remote, circumspect” father’s mysterious past, Stew tries to piece together the story. He soon discovers that David left behind a rambling, novelistic account of the episode, which composes the bulk of Turow’s novel (and makes you wonder why he bothered with the awkward contemporary frame).
Soon after landing in Europe, David is handed an assignment straight out of Heart of Darkness: Round up Robert Martin, a rogue officer who has stopped following orders. At a provincial chateau, David discovers Martin (”remarkable to behold, dark haired, strong jawed, and vibrating with physical energy”) and his minx-like partner, Gita Lodz, overseeing a handful of French Resistance fighters. The Army’s fussy rules have no place in Europe’s struggle, Martin and Gita tell David. ”I know what is wrong,” Gita proclaims, in one of her many cineplex-ready speeches. ”As does Martin. The Nazis are wrong. Fight them. That is the only rule that should matter.”
Is she for real? Or is she taking orders from Stalin? And when she seduces David, is she manipulating him on Martin’s behalf? This is Alan Furst-style intrigue that Turow has embedded in a puffy and earnest Band of Brothers war epic. As David slogs through the snow of Bastogne between encounters with Martin and Gita?harrowing chunks of the novel have nothing to do with their triangle?it’s unclear what genre Turow is attempting.
Turow gave Presumed Innocent, his ice-cold masterpiece, one of the most shattering kickers in thriller history. While Ordinary Heroes is perfectly serviceable entertainment, he lacks that kind of control of this material or milieu. He’s set the melodramatic denouement to the Gita-Martin-David ménage at a concentration camp, where one moment David’s heart feels ”as if it might explode” from longing for the ”gallant, deceitful” Gita, and the next he is weeping over the ”staggering magnitude of the cruelty” perpetrated by the Nazis. Turow hasn’t brought the readers to anything close to that emotional pitch. Which leads to a final World War II trap to avoid: borrowed Holocaust gravitas. B-