By Liat Faver
Tobias Wolff has been lucky: Lucky he survived his mother’s succession of destructive boyfriends, to have learned from his father’s mistakes, to not have a rap sheet, and to have survived a year in the Vietnam War. In Pharaoh’s Army is a continuation of his coming of age account, This Boy’s Life. In the latter, we watch young Toby struggling to establish an identity, among the ruins left by his con-man father, and the often violent men his mother chooses as boyfriends and surrogate dads. At the end of This Boy’s Life, we realize, along with Toby, that whatever turns his life takes, his future is bleak if he stays where he is. So, he joins the army, and leaves the reader wanting to know what happens next, and repeatedly, our protagonist proves he must learn the hard way.
In Pharaoh’s Army begins on the Mekong Delta, where Wolff has been sent to counsel a Vietnamese battalion. Although he is not on the front lines, his encounters with death and destruction are enough to create in him a sense of bartering against his own demise. He is aware that he is deluding himself, “but illusions kept me going and I declined to pursue any line of thought that might put them in danger” (5). Wolff’s humor is welcome in a story set primarily in the land of constant threat, compounded when our hero recognizes that the enemy is often one of his own people.
When Wolff and his friend, Sergeant Benet, steal a color television to watch a Thanksgiving episode of Bonanza, we again visit the ironies of war. Wolff and Benet are lulled and soothed in the glow of the Cartwright family gathering, and Wolff’s tired heart swells with “pride in the beauty of my own land, and the good hearts and high purposes of her people, of whom, after all, I was one” (37). Wolff’s sarcasm is not lost on the reader.
Wolff imparts fragments of the civilian life that led him to enlist, and some of what evolved upon his return from Vietnam. We are introduced to his crazed first fiancé and her family, and we get to know his father. And we see his evolution as a writer and scholar. He is forthright and humble and surprised at his ability: “Mostly I was glad to find out that I could write at all. In writing you work toward a result you won’t see for years, and can’t be sure you’ll ever see. It takes stamina and self-mastery and faith . . . I was saving my life with every word I wrote” (213).
Wolff ends In Pharaoh’s Army remembering and missing his friend Hugh Pierce, who was killed in Vietnam. He is now a father with a successful career and stable family life. He has overcome his father’s legacy and made peace with his demons. And he has made us see and laugh at ourselves in his failures and underdog victories. For a book whose bulk is based mostly in the muck and mire of a pointless, brutal war, it is an enthralling, easy read that leaves one feeling hopeful, and looking forward to another book from Tobias Wolff.
Wolff, Tobias. In Pharaoh’s Army. New York: Knopf. 1994. Print.