I will confess that I picked this up one afternoon because it was short. I’d finished a book and had a few hours to spare. The premise looked interesting enough and was also something that I normally do not read. The Barracks Thief pops into the lives of three young men who have been trained by the Army to be paratroopers. They are stationed at Fort Bragg in North Carolina and are awaiting departure to Vietnam. One evening they are ordered to guard an ammunition field. Compelled by boredom and I suppose a desire to lash out, they engage in some dangerous and violent acts. Doing this has fueled their desire for recklessness.
After the ammunition dump escapade the men seem confident even excited about the prospect of war but a series of petty thefts begins to occur amongst the group of men shattering their camaraderie and cohesiveness as a unit. They become unsure and even unbelieving that one of their own would take money. This difference between what is and isn’t accepted amongst the unit I found intriguing.
Though a short novel, the best part is that it is packed with emotional and personal exploration. We are able to enter the minds of two of the men and see how even absurd acts can be rationalized. Wolff does a good job of helping the reader understand each character and even accept their reasoning, even if in normal circumstances we would not.
The Barracks Thief was awarded the PEN/Faulkner Award in 1985. This year’s winner, Sherman Alexie’s War Dances, was announced last month.