The Making of a Skeptic

By Paul Fussell, Little, Brown, 310 pages.

By Dwight Garner
Published September 27, 1996 7:00PM (EDT)

The great thing about Paul Fussell -- besides his lean, witty, no-nonsense prose -- has always been his knack for pissing people off. His contrarian streak is a mile wide, and in books like "Class," "Thank God for the Atom Bomb," and "The Anti-Egotist" (his slim biography of Kingsley Amis), he can be counted upon to blast cant, pretense and sloppy thinking wherever he finds them. Even better, his elegiac literary sensibility -- most fully on display in his classic "The Great War and Modern Memory" -- prevents him from sounding like a mere attack dog. He's more than just one of our most reliable and engaging social critics -- he's a national treasure.

Fussell's new memoir, "Doing Battle: The Making of a Skeptic," is an account of how his experience in World War II, in which he was gravely wounded by an exploding German shell, transformed him from "a fat boy into a thing that would be called, in later wars, a lean, mean killing machine." It is also the story of how Fussell, raised in an upper-middle-class family in Pasadena, California, became so sick of the army's "institutional fraud, boredom and futility" that he vowed never to have to take anyone's orders again. He sought instead a life among books. "In literature I fled the farthest possible distance from the simplifications and conformity demanded by the military," he writes. "I am entirely serious when I assert that if I have ever developed into a passable literary scholar, editor, and critic, the credit belongs to the United States Army."

Fussell writes tartly here of his flight from piety and received opinion, and about how the war filled him with an almost "disabling anger." He spares no one, not least himself. He describes his fear and occasional cowardice on the battlefield in full detail, as well as his inability to make friends easily after the war. Yet while "Doing Battle" is never less than compelling reading, it probably will not rank among Fussell's very best books. As a war memoir, it lacks the depth and suggestiveness of, say, Robert Graves' "Goodbye to All That." And readers familiar with Fussell's work will find that the later chapters of "Doing Battle" contain a good deal of material taken almost verbatim from his previous books. As always, though, Fussell fully makes the case that the "most important responsibility" in any thinking person's life is "criticism -- artistic, literary, intellectual, political, and social." Put more simply: If we don't make discriminations, we're not really alive.

Dwight Garner

Dwight Garner is Salon's book review editor.

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