Anyone who has read the work of William Wharton before, knows that his personal "writer's demon" (the thing that he is trying to exorcize, ala the famous quote by Mario Vargas Llosa) is the time he spent in the Army during WWII. It's there, in the beginning, in his National Book Award-winning novel, BIRDY. It resurfaces in his third (semi-autobiographical) novel, A MIDNIGHT CLEAR. And it rears its head again in FRANKY FURBO, which (like BIRDY) is a stylistically complex novel that uses the tropes of science fiction and children's fantasy to "cast out" Wharton's particular demon.
No surprise, then, to find that he finally sat down to write a nonfiction account of his time in Europe. And no surprise to find that Wharton didn't write this memoir earlier in his career, since he was always a low-key, no publicity, kind of writer (the only time that changed was when he wrote an account of an accident -- WRONGFUL DEATHS -- that resulted in the death of his daughter, her husband, and their children -- and even then, his only desire was to get the word out about some ongoing, unsafe, and government-sanctioned practices).
The aptly named SHRAPNEL reads like a war diary, with Wharton setting down only the high points of the years he spent in the Army, and subsequently in Europe, fighting during WWII (in France and Germany). The memoirs begin in boot camp and go on all the way until VE day in Europe. I won't dissect the book too much, since it is a fairly short memoir, and I wouldn't want to ruin the read. But I can say that Wharton was involved in just a heck of a lot of action, even having been wounded by shrapnel about half-a-dozen times (one such incident caused inner ear damage that wasn't discovered till near the end of the war -- not surprising for anyone who has served in the military). And one early incident, involving a secret mission dreamed up by a general, sounds like something out of CATCH-22 or MASH -- and it is, once again, _very_ believable for anyone who has served, and knows about the usual caliber of men who inhabit the "upper echelons" (officer territory: the majority of them are stone-cold morons, and most of the others are career savvy-morons -- men like Capt. Winter, who was immortalized in the book, BAND OF BROTHERS, are few and far between).
From the outrageous antics that go on in boot camp at Ft. Benning Georgia, to his meeting with a beautiful, violet-eyed, young woman in England, to several different engagements with the enemy(several of which Wharton was lucky to survive), and an impromptu flight in a light airplane, right on through to incidents of looting (to which Wharton was an accomplice) and one major incident that haunted the author for years, SHRAPNEL makes for a page-turning, eye-opening, moving and even comical reading experience.
Some savvy publisher (Everyman's Library, perhaps), should group Wharton's war novels (mentioned above) with this memoir, and republish them all for posterity.
Wharton was a gifted writer, who could write clean, crisp prose -- as he did in SHRAPNEL -- while being stylistically innovative (as he did in BIRDY and FRANKY FURBO).
Either way, SHRAPNEL is a five star, read, well worth the money!