(boston.com, Dec. 19, 2008, David Liss)
As he does with his many preceding novels, Ivan Doig roots “The Eleventh Man” in rural Montana of the past, but this book, set during the years of American involvement in World War II, is much more wide-ranging than the author’s previous work. Here Doig focuses on the exploits of a monumentally successful football team, but lest the combination of college football and the Second World War make the book sound like a parody of Father’s Day marketing, let me state right away that Doig has bigger fish to fry than pressing the hot buttons of American masculinity. This is a tale almost entirely devoid of nostalgia, and one that wishes to celebrate the valor of the greatest generation while viewing it with skepticism and even cynicism.
The novel centers on Ben Reinking (I feel like there is something metaphorical happening with this name, but I haven’t figured out what exactly), a war correspondent working for the vaguely mysterious Threshold Press War Project, a government news bureau that specializes in providing stories to small-town papers. Ben was once part of the “Supreme Team,” an undefeated Montana university football team, and when the entire starting lineup enlists following the attack on Pearl Harbor, Ben is assigned to write inspiring profiles on the other 10 men.
It seems like a straightforward project, and one the son of a small-town newspaper man ought to embrace, but Ben has plenty of doubts and resents having been forced out of pilot training to pursue the family business. He also has plenty of problems, not the least of which is his romance with a married female pilot, an affair that provides much fodder for musings on personal responsibility and loyalty in wartime. If this weren’t enough, Ben hates the fact that his stories are consistently altered to make the details more patriotic and uplifting. These redactions grow increasingly troubling as a disproportionate number of the former teammates are injured or killed in action, leaving Ben to wonder if perhaps they are being put in harm’s way deliberately so the propaganda machine might generate more heroes.
“The Eleventh Man” is, at its core, a novel about the uses of narrative, about the ways in which we construct fictions to inspire bravery, loyalty, and sacrifice. The Supreme Team itself was built on such a narrative, that of a 12th man who died unexpectedly and to whom the team dedicated its season. That narrative – which turns out to be far more sinister than it seems – serves as a microcosm for Ben as he finds himself forced to sign off on one reworked story after another. As the novel circles from the history of the undefeated season to the soldiers and back again, it insistently chews over the notion that great powers will always be willing to sacrifice some men to inspire others to make even more sacrifices.
To make this point, Doig takes Ben through some of the major European and Pacific battles, and the novel is full of exciting set-pieces: firefights, battles against the elements, kamikaze attacks. Doig’s prose is generally engaging, though sometimes the writing becomes bogged down with awkward and convoluted descriptions: “The painted stones spelled the way down the steep sidehill, the enormous lettering ghost-white in the bunchgrass.” More troubling, the characters themselves, including Ben, remain perpetually at an alienating distance. Reading about their exploits often feels like watching characters portrayed through black-and-white newsreels. Everything is urgent and immediate and present, and yet strangely difficult to embrace.
Nevertheless, the book remains always compelling and accessible. It’s hard not to read some kind of contemporary analogy into this historical tale about a government’s willingness to manipulate truth and lies to further its own ends. On the other hand, such manipulation is fairly universal in times of war, and if there is anything Doig has shown himself adept at over his career, it is accessing the universal through the particular.
David Liss is the author of five novels, most recently “The Whiskey Rebels.”