My admiration for William Wharton began in 1978 with the publication of his first novel, Birdy, the story of a young man who, well, believes that he is a bird—or at least that he should be able to fly like a bird. By any measure, it’s an extraordinary novel that received major attention. It’s also very much an anti-war novel at a time when many people were angry at our involvement in Vietnam, though the war described in Birdy is World War II, often described as “the good war.” Perhaps this is why the movie version, in 1984, switched the war to Vietnam. In spite of the shift, the movie was impressive, often brilliant, because of the first-rate acting by Matthew Modine (who played Birdy) and Nicolas Cage (his pal, Al), as well as launching their successful movie careers.
Wharton (who used that name as a pseudonym) rapidly published other major novels—Dad (in 1982) and A Midnight Clear (in 1982). Both of these works (also made into excellent movies) were followed by five more, perhaps a little less inventive and successful. Until 1994 few people knew the author’s true identity and why he had chosen to use a pseudonym at a time most writers used no such disguise. Where the novels (especially Birdy) autobiographical? Then in 1994, Wharton published a memoir called Wrongful Deaths, the tragic story of a terrible automobile accident in Oregon, caused by the controlled burning of farmland. Wharton’s daughter, her husband, and their two children did not survive a massive pileup of cars. And although Wrongful Deaths was still published under the name William Wharton, he identified his real name: Albert William DuAime. Wharton spent several years trying to get a cessation of controlled farm-burning.
Besides being a prolific writer, for much of his adult life Wharton was also a successful painter who lived with his family in France on a houseboat on the Seine. When he died in 2008, his popularity in the United States had waned but, oddly, this was not true of his fame in Poland where he had published half a dozen additional novels and memoirs. This is one of those curious instances that happen more frequently than one might realize when a writer becomes more successful in translation than in the original. In Wharton’s case, perhaps his following in Poland was also because he wrote so frequently about World War II, with no glorification of fighting but instead with fear and trauma (PTS). That takes us to Shrapnel, written after he was seventy—for the first time an account of his own activities during the Good War.
Wharton entered the military in 1944, toward the end of the war, when he was eighteen and underwent training at Fort Benning, Pennsylvania. As he observes in the prologue of his memoir: “War for me, though brief, had been a soul-shaking trauma. I was scared, miserable, and I lost confidence in human beings, especially myself. It was a very unhappy experience.” He also states that when his children were still young, he didn’t want them to know about many of the things that happened to him in the war (including about the people he had killed); he wanted to protect them from the worst. After the completion of training he was shipped to England and subsequently dropped behind enemy lines in France—ostensibly to deliver a radio to French fighters.
That delivery was not successful, yet he was eventually reunited with Americans and became a squad leader in Intelligence and Reconnaissance, which mostly entailed moving ahead of his squadron and searching for German troops. The litany of his fear is relentless. He considered desertion. He hoped that he would get trench foot so he could be sent to a hospital. Much of the time, he says he was scared to death, and as the war continued, became even more frightened that he would die. He also believes that he was more frightened than others. He was court martialed a number of times but quickly put back into service because of the circumstances. He was awarded at least three purple hearts and hit by shrapnel so often that it was impossible for all of it to be removed from his body. The woman who was his originating literary agent—who discovered Wharton’s work—says that for the rest of his life he tripped metal detectors in airports. As he wryly observes, “Flying shrapnel in those days [was] almost as common was wasps.”
The question of fighting was not simply one of staying alive but also of doing no harm. Wharton says that the only heroes of wars are conscientious objectors. As the war continues and the patrols are increasingly frequent, he asks himself, “How can I get out of this, how can I manage to stay alive and not kill any more people?” He even remarks that he wouldn’t mind being a prisoner—presumably that would take him out of harm’s way, anything so he would not have to be in a position of authority. And when the war ends (and he’s only nineteen) he writes of the difficulty of forgetting, of putting it all behind him, which takes us back to Birdy, where Al is asked to visit his friend in an army mental institution and help his friend break free of his strange bird-like behavior.
Shrapnel is a brave book. Pity that William Wharton did not live to see its publication in the United States. Wharton hated the war but it provided him with a subject that became obsessive. The wounds of war and of life in general begin early in people’s lives: “a rejection by a parent or loved one such as a good friend, not getting on the baseball team, not being chosen. The usual failures in the courtship rituals and trials, it goes on and on and sometimes if we’re not careful we can become disabled, unhappy, distressed or depressed by the small wounds we suffer, often without anyone meaning to hurt us.”
Read William Wharton’s Shrapnel and, as you read this powerful memoir, think about all the young men and women in our wars today—the wounds they will carry with them forever, maybe not setting off metal detectors in airports but ricocheting off other people in their lives.
William Wharton: Shrapnel: a Memoir
Morrow, 263 pp., $23.99
Charles R. Larson is Emeritus Professor of Literature at American University in Washington, D.C. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.