The Old Army Game by George Garrett, 1961
The magic trick:
A knowing nod that this story treads on familiar ground
I’m a fan of wrapping art in a layer of self-effacement. There’s something permissive about it. Kind of takes the edge off. Lets the reader know the author isn’t trying to come at them from some all-knowing place. Now that being said, we just did an entire week here at SSMT about Stuart Dybek – a writer whose work is decidedly layered in pretense – and it is his total embrace of artistic sheen that makes him one of my all-time favorites. So I’m not saying that a story must operate with a wink and a nod. I’m just saying it helps.
George Garrett uses a wink and a nod here. His narrator talks about how he will be telling the story as he tells the story. He is very concerned that the reader knows that he understands that some of this might sound like a clichéd army story. It is very disarming. The story, as it develops, of course, goes in surprising directions far away from any clichés, and as it does, the narrator inserts fewer and fewer such comments. The result is akin to a storyteller who begins with some trepidation but gradually gains confidence. And that’s quite a trick on Garrett’s part.
How did these various things happen? You’re bound to ask. Didn’t anybody go to the Inspector General, the Chaplain, write a Congressman or Mother? Not to my knowledge. Anyone could have, it’s true, but all were very young and in mortal fear of the man. Who would be the first to go? No one went. And – mirabilis! – nobody cracked up. If anything we got tougher and tougher every day. Gave our souls to God.