Nick Arvin didn't intend to write a war novel.
Author of an acclaimed short story collection, In the Electric Eden (Vintage Books, 2003), Arvin was researching the city of Detroit for a short story when he came across an article about Eddie Slovik, the American soldier executed for desertion on Jan. 31, 1945, under direct orders from Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower. Killed by a firing squad and buried in the French countryside, Slovik was the first American to be executed for desertion since the Civil War.
"I was just immediately fascinated and moved by his story," said Arvin, in a recent interview from his home in Denver. "I remember pacing around a room, thinking I couldn't write about it. I felt very intimidated about the material."
But the material persisted, and Arvin, after tinkering with multiple points of view and various aspects of Slovik's story, crafted what might be the finest war novel of his generation of writers, a slim volume titled Articles of War.
Critics are unanimous in their praise of the fierceness, the quality of the storytelling, and the intense emotional impact of Articles of War, the story of an 18-year-old Iowa farm boy's terrifying experience of World War II, immediately following the D-Day invasion in Normandy. William Safire named it in his end of the year New York Times column, "Office Pool 2005," predicting it would be one of the most talked about books of the year. Publishers Weekly called it "a fierce, compact tale of one grunt's war ... and elegant testament to the stoicism, accidental cowardice and occasional heroics of men under fire."
The violent but beautifully written tale culminates with an unexpected encounter with Eddie Slovik that affirms and illuminates the book's real subject -- paralyzing fear.
"Ultimately, when I decided to write it, it seemed that [the experience of fear and terror in the face of war] was missing from the literature," said Arvin. "In [Stephen Crane's] The Red Badge of Courage, the main character has that experience, then relatively quickly overcomes it.
"But after reading more about World War II and Slovik and the thousands of guys that deserted, I just felt that writing about that experience of being there and being frightened was important."
In fact, more than 20,000 American soldiers were convicted of desertion during World War II, but only Slovik received the ultimate punishment. In Articles of War, Arvin's protagonist, George Tilson, nicknamed Heck because he doesn't curse, struggles with terror and his own cowardice throughout his tenure as a combat soldier.
Treating fear and war as intimate companions speaks to Arvin's emotional courage as an author, and explains the book's tender emotional appeal, despite its graphic brutality.
And Arvin's professional experience as a forensic engineer, reconstructing automobile accidents, might explain his uncanny ability to recreate a scene based on details found in his research.
"I was getting toward the end of it when the invasion of Afghanistan happened," he said. "I felt I had a pretty good idea what was happening over there because I'd spent so much time reconstructing battle scenes."
Running parallel to Heck's experience of war is his first experience of physical love with a French woman named Claire, also terrifying but ultimately hopeful. With Articles of War, Nick Arvin has produced an American classic, a war tale to place on the shelf next to Hemingway, a tale of humanity under fire.
-- Kathryn Eastburn
Nick Arvin will sign and read from Articles of War
Wednesday, Feb. 23, 7:30 p.m.
Tattered Cover Cherry Creek, 2955 East 1st Ave., Denver