(grandforkshearld.com, Nov. 16, Mary Ann Gwinn)
‘The Eleventh Man’: The fates of legendary football teammates play out in WWII
Ivan Doig is a fearless storyteller. The Seattle author, an icon among writers of the American west, has set his novels and memoirs against our region’s natural grandeur and has put hundreds of characters in play on its outsize stage. Now, in his novel “The Eleventh Man,” Doig has taken on the largest of backdrops: the entire theater of World War II.
“The Eleventh Man” is the story of Ben Reinking, the son of a newspaper owner in Gros Ventre, a small town in Montana. Ben, out of college just two years, is fighting the war in a peculiar way: Yanked from an assignment as a combat pilot, Ben has been pressed into service as a journalist/propagandist for the Threshold Press War Project, a government-backed press service that feeds heroic stories to midsize and small newspapers that can’t afford their own war correspondent.
In college, Ben was a member of Treasure State University’s legendary “Supreme Team,” which fought to an undefeated season after one of their players ran himself to death in a workout (who’s at fault is one of the unfolding mysteries of the book). Every surviving member of the football team has joined up. Ben’s assignment is to tell their war stories, all over the globe.
Right from the get go, Ben resists; the odds are that at least a few of these stories are going to be obituaries. His handler, a shadowy figure called the Colonel, insists that the awful arithmetic of wartime still tilts toward the team’s survival: “ ‘Statistically speaking, in this war we are looking at a 9 percent mortality rate for active combatants such as your teammates. Rounding that off to a whole man, as we must’ — Ben stared at a human being who could use the law of averages to measure dirt on a grave — ‘that is one in ten, isn’t it.’” Not to give too much away, but things don’t quite turn out that way.
Ben, not having any choice in the matter of wartime duty, throws himself into the task; he’s got the genes of a newspaperman and can’t resist the dramatic contrast of the Supreme Team’s stories: Vic Rennie, the Blackfoot Indian who lived in a relative’s shack while attending Treasure State, has already stepped on a land mine and is consigned to a wheelchair. But Dex Cariston, scion of a moneyed Montana family, is sitting out the war in a camp of conscientious objector-status smoke jumpers (as with many details in this book, this one is based on historical fact; there really was such a unit).
Meanwhile, Ben’s blood is aboil over Cass Standish, a married female pilot assigned to the same Montana air base. Cass is head of a squad of all-female pilots charged with ferrying planes from one North American location to another. Some of the best scenes in “The Eleventh Man” convey the crackling “From Here to Eternity”-style passion between these two: Cass is wild about Ben, but she’s married, her husband is slogging out the war in the jungles of New Guinea and she’s not about to write a Dear John letter addressed to a soldier in green hell.
Doig’s way with a sweeping scene is on display in “The Eleventh Man’s” evocation of the awful grandeur of war. Standing on the deck of a destroyer as it attempts to bomb a Japanese submarine into oblivion, Ben watches his own death postponed:
“Sea air rushed by, there on the steel promontory into the dark. A mane of moonsilver flowed back from the destroyer’s bow … As his eyes adjusted, Ben could just make out the long narrow deck below, armaments jutting ready if they only had a target, faces of the gun crews pale patches foreshortened by helmets.”
Then the submarine takes a direct hit: “He felt the shudder up from the water. Astern, explosions bloomed white in the darkness. Knowing this to be one of the sights of a lifetime, he watched with an intensity near to quivering. Not often is it given to you to stare away death, see it go instead in search of your sworn enemy.”
While “The Eleventh Man” is a showcase for larger-than-life characters and scenes, at times it threatens to founder under the weight of its structure. Readers are parachuted into the lives of each teammate, then yanked up again and set on the road to somewhere and someone else. The book is a stage chockablock with interesting characters who speak their lines — bluff, hearty, lyrical, ironic — then get snatched away.
And a key concern of the novel — whether a malign deus ex machina is dictating the assignments, and fates, of the team — was never quite resolved to this reader’s satisfaction. Would a government agency really thrust these young men into hazardous assignments for the purpose of creating dead heroes, or is Ben’s presence more a sort of jinx? Both possibilities are suggested but never spelled out. Ben’s minders are manipulative and heartless, but they never really step from behind the curtain.
With Doig’s warm regard for his Supreme Team characters, his disdain for his story’s villains and his way with the heart-stopping action scene, in “The Eleventh Man” he has created a wartime epic, but with a difference. Though its marketing suggests it will resonate with the “Greatest Generation, “The Eleventh Man” trembles with the weariness of the modern age toward carnage — a war novel with an anti-war heart.