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A Separate War : V FOR VICTOR <i> by Mark Childress (Alfred A. Knopf: $18.95; 289 pp.) </i>

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It seems there are two kinds of novels about World War II. There are those books that attempt in fiction seriously to depict the war, its characters, its era, and to contribute to both literature and history. And there are other novels that merely use the war as a backdrop for a plotted story of intrigue and romance, exploiting what have too often become the “good” war’s melodramatic ideologies of good and evil.

Mark Childress’ new book, “V for Victor,” is just such a melodramatic story. World War II is used as a setting for an unlikely plot, the intent of which seems to be to spin an intricate mystery combined with a young man’s struggles to come of age.

The main character, Victor, is a boy of 16, living temporarily on a remote island in the mouth of the Magnolia River that spills into Alabama’s Mobile Bay. He is there to accompany his grandmother, who has returned to the family’s impoverished, backwater home to spend her last days. Victor’s older brother, Joseph, is off at the front and considered by all to be a hero, overshadowing Victor’s sense of himself. Perhaps because of this, and the isolation of the island and his grandmother’s illness, Victor is filled with a strange combination of longing for the action of the war and a wish for his own death. “I wish we were both dead . . . ,” he says to his grandmother as they listen to a heartbreaking, war-era song on the radio. “Who would care? Nobody.”

It is in this state of mind that Victor’s improbable trajectory begins. He discovers a body washed ashore, and in so doing is bushwacked by another young boy, Butch, who guards illegal stills in the swamp. After an escape, Victor sets out across the bay in a small boat, looking to report the dead body to the law. He just happens to crash into a German submarine, sinks, and is miraculously saved by the local coast watcher, Roy Glass, who, as it turns out, is really an enemy agent disguised and passing himself off to everyone in this small-town Southern community as the coastal lawman.

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As though this weren’t unbelievable enough, Victor is taken into the employ of a wealthy couple, Edgar Gilliam and his sinister, star actress wife, Constance Belair, as guide and boatboy on their luxurious yacht. There is a beautiful daughter involved, who provides this contrived story with a sexual interest. The backwoods still guard, Butch, somehow becomes Victor’s friend and helper in unraveling the U-boat mystery.

“V for Victor” is a story full of red herrings, double-agents, murder, unlikely confrontations and escapes. In one incident that not only asks of the reader a tough suspension of disbelief but an irritating battle against sheer incredulity, while pursuing the German U-boat in the luxury yacht, Victor and company watch a tanker sunk by torpedoes in Mobile Bay and, coincidentally, brother Joseph just happens to be pulled out of the burning wreckage. It turns out that he has deserted the Army overseas and has been working his way home on merchant ships. The crisis of youthful hero worship that Victor then must face is resolved in cliched B-movie fashion, with chase scenes, chance meetings, and a climactic fiery explosion.

H. G. Wells once wrote a simple maxim about fiction--"If nothing is believable, then nothing will be believed.” That is almost the case with Childress’ second novel. Anachronisms of language and historical impossibilities about the war abound through this story; so, too, does the plot resemble a very messily accomplished mystery about the Hardy Boys.

But what is believable about “V for Victor,” and a confirmation of the writing talent of young author Childress, is the occasional landscape or character description that does ring true: “The Magnolia River meanders for five miles down from its spring, widening, opening, mixing with the salty tide as it approaches Weeks Bay. This wide, shallow lake narrows down to a mouth. The lower jaw of this mouth was Willie’s island--a half mile of marsh grass, a long stretch of thickety woods, a high place of two or three acres well-shaded by live oaks, with Weeks Bay on one side and the big bay, Mobile, on the other. . . .”

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One senses that Childress, at least, knows his river vividly: “The boat stirred sideways from the dock. Imperceptibly it began gaining speed. The trees reflected the throb of its engines. Here the Magnolia was so narrow that Daniel could bush-hog both banks if he lowered his outriggers. His wake spread in a V, washing a flock of blackheaded ducks from their fallen log. . . .”

This authenticity of landscape is the novel’s strongest element. Also, the grandmother, Willie, who dies early in the story but lingers as a voice in Victor’s mind, is a thoroughly interesting and credible character. It’s unfortunate that Childress, in trying to exploit World War II for so much unbelievable action and melodrama, didn’t concentrate more on what is truthful, penetrating, and honest about his landscape and people. But that would have meant a different kind of story set during the war era, and a book that would have made much more worthwhile reading.


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