Wednesday, June 20, 2018

The Sergeant #03 - Bloody Bush

The only thing I didn’t care for about “BLOODY BUSH” was the title. Otherwise, this third entry in 'The Sergeant' series not only equals the first two books in excellence, but surpasses them in terms of narrative power and character development.

The first book, “DEATH TRAIN”, introduces us to Sgt. Clarence Mahoney and brings us along on an undercover demolition mission of his in Nazi-occupied France. That mission gets wrapped up surprisingly quickly, so then we tag along as he helps members of the French resistance fight back when the Germans besiege their headquarters. The action is solid and the storytelling is superb, and Mahoney is such a fascinating character that he himself is the best thing in the book. A gruff, cigar-chomping Superman in dirty fatigues, he’s all but invincible as the Germans throw everything they have at him. 

(The Mac Wingate series, which would debut a year later, chronicles the adventures of another American undercover he-man demolition expert tirelessly fighting the Nazis. Remarkable coincidence or cynical rip-off?) 

The Sergeant’s second book, “HELL HARBOR”, avoids the bifurcated narrative of “DEATH TRAIN” and tells one epic war adventure story, sending Mahoney deep into the revolting sewers of Cherbourg on a mission to prevent the Germans from blowing up a key harbor installation. Now Mahoney is more human, more nuanced, and more vulnerable. The story is cohesive but the plot isn’t very rigid. It’s related as a series of incidents, some combat-driven and some character-driven. The first book set the bar pretty high, but “HELL HARBOR” is even better.

And now “BLOODY BUSH” is the best one yet. Hoping for less risk to life and limb, Mahoney has transferred to a regular Army platoon and the secret missions are over. It’s July 1944, and the D-Day landings have been successful, but now the Americans need to push out of Normandy into the interior of France, and into the jaws of the waiting German army.

WWII buffs will appreciate how skillfully the novel blends fact and fiction, as the novel deals with both the Battle of the Hedgerows and the Battle of St. Lo. It’s not all about endless warfare, either; the narrative also involves Erwin Rommel and the plot to assassinate Hitler. In fact, Rommel, Hitler and George Patton all play extended supporting roles in this story. 

But you don’t have to be a history nut to enjoy this book. It’s classic masculine pulp, with lots of exciting combat sequences as well as some colorful confrontations between Mahoney and an arrogant army captain (I enjoyed these even more). Good war fiction pulls the reader into the action on an intellectual level, but really top-notch war fiction makes you feel it in your gut, with vivid details of everything from the flying dirt and shrapnel to the exhaustion, the fear and the sinking apprehension that today is your last day on Earth. The way the ground vibrates beneath a soldier during an artillery barrage, the panic and the adrenaline that take over in hand-to-hand combat, the psychological impact of weak leadership as opposed to confident leadership… it’s all here, painting the experience of war in both the broad strokes and in the little details. 

Author Len Levinson (writing as Gordon Davis) nails all of this with his usual skill. Even better, he further explores Mahoney’s complex persona, refining the characteristics we already knew about and developing a few new ones. Mahoney can bust a fellow soldier’s jaw in one chapter, kneel in prayer and carry a Bible under his shirt in another chapter, usurp a superior officer’s command in yet another chapter, and nevertheless there are no contradictions in him, just complexity. It’s rare to find such nuance in pulp fiction. It’s extraordinary. And so is this series.