The Barracks Thief is the story of three young paratroopers waiting to be shipped out to Vietnam. Brought together one sweltering afternoon to stand guard over an ammunition dump threatened by a forest fire, they discover in each other an unexpected capacity for recklessness and violence. Far from being alarmed by this discovery, they are exhilarated by it; they emerge from their common danger full of confidence in their own manhood and in the bond of friendship they have formed. This confidence is shaken when a series of thefts occur. The author embraces the perspectives of both the betrayer and the betrayed, forcing us to participate in lives that we might otherwise condemn, and to recognize the kinship of those lives to our own.
The three bond after their shared guard duty of a remote ammo dump and their cavalier behaviour there. As the characters' lives are filled out the plot develops with some mysterious thefts.
The attention to detail in this slim volume is remarkable, and I wanted to know more about where these boys were going and what happens to them in the future. The atmospheric descriptions really put you there - right into their lives. I almost gave it the full 5 stars, only I really felt like I was left wanting more! Maybe that is the best way? I will definitely be on the lookout for more of Wolff's writing.
What we have here is a short novel (120 pages) with typical Wolff characters - dry, cynical and on the loser side of things - that have volunteered to the US Army at the beginning of the Vietnam War. The three of them are the noobs of one of the barracks' company and they suffer both from the harsh conditions of the military life and also from the contempt of the older soldiers. Their weaker status brings them together. At the same time a series of small crimes start happening in the barracks. Wallets stolen, someone gets punched in the face while getting a shower, everybody's suspicious. Who is responsible? Is he an outsider? Is he "one of us"?
The story is a simply told one - of a young man from a broken home who joins the army, goes to jump school at Ft Bragg, then awaits his orders to Vietnam. While waiting, an uneasy friendship develops between three 'outsiders,' and goes to pieces from there. There are pre-echoes in this 1984 novella of works to come from Wolff - his now-classic memoirs THIS BOY'S LIFE and IN PHARAOH'S ARMY, both books I have read and enjoyed tremendously.
Thirty years later, this book still works, particularly for anyone who has served in the military. Even in 1984 Wolff was already in full possession of the formidable storytelling skills which would make him famous. Highly recommended.