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I enjoy the odd war movie, usually the older ones - but I haven't ever really read much fiction with a military theme. I would never in a million years have picked this book up if not for one detail. It was written by Richard Matheson. Matheson is probably best known for his work with Hollywood, either through novels that later became movies such as The Box, Stir of Echoes, Somewhere in Time and Hell House, as well as his work on famous television series - most notably The Twilight Zone but his name appears in the credits of countless television and movie scripts. For all his fame though, I had never read any of his work until recently, starting with perhaps his most famous work 'I Am Legend', from which three adaptations have been filmed : The Last Man on Earth, The Omega Man, and most recently I am Legend with Will Smith, which brings the story into a much more modern setting.
The quality of Matheson's writing impressed me so much I had to try another one of his books, and I settled on this. I was a bit wary, war themes are much easier to create screenplays for than fiction. A movie has all the benefits of special effects, but the book only cost me £2.44, it wasn't too much of a gamble. Still I was unsure what to expect, and not certain if Matheson's other work could possibly be as good as 'I am Legend'.
'The Beardless Warriors' is set towards the end of WW2. Everett Hackemeyer, or Hack as he is called, is an 18 year old replacement sent to the front lines with the American 87th regiment. The book covers only the time span of a couple of weeks, but a couple of weeks on a battlefield may well be a lifetime. Hack arrives as a tormented young man, who has never really known human kindness. He has lived a life horrific enough, that the battlefield is not really any worse than what he has become accustomed to. Hack will finally find a talent at which he excels - killing people. But there is more to being a soldier than just killing. A soldier needs to be able to depend on his unit - to form some relationships with other human beings - this will be Hack's biggest challenge. Will he find himself on the battlefield, and will he be able to live with the identity he finds?
On reading this book, I had a hard time believing this was fiction. This had the same flavour as the war stories my grandfather and others had told me, although it told of a much more tormented individual. Every detail seemed so real though, I could not believe this was written by a man who had not spent some time in the foxholes himself. I ended up googling this and found out that while the book is fiction - at least it is meant to be, Matheson did in fact serve as an 18 year old replacement soldier towards the end of the 2nd World War, with the American 87th regiment, and he does admit to basing this book on his experiences there. But is he in fact anything like Hack? I don't suppose we will ever know.
I have commented on my review of 'I Am Legend', that I felt Matheson must have known great loneliness or sorrow in his life to be able to so perfectly convey these emotions in the book. I feel the same with this book. There is an anguish on the pages that is palpable, a deep loneliness no less in this case for the presence of other people. It does not matter how many men surround Hack - he is as isolated as Neville, the last man on earth in 'I Am Legend'. The other characters in this book are equally well written, although most play relatively minor roles. Sergeant Cooley is Hack's one real hope of finding himself, but Cooley is a busy man trying to keep a handful young recruits alive in the midst of whole scale slaughter. He is gruff man, but truly good, and reminds me quite a bit of my grandfather, who spent the majority of his army career as a sergeant.
This book takes place primarily in the mud. There are fights, brutal and vividly described, but the majority of the time, Hack is trudging through mud, digging foxholes in mud and sleeping in mud. This is another aspect of the book that reminded me so much of my grandfathers stories; mud, cold and trudging along. Struggling to dig in, only to be told to pull out, move a few feet and dig again. It is in the mud, Hack, who shuns human contact has time to think, and within his own head a battle rages every bit as intense, and vital for his survival as that on the battlefield.
I have to place this as one of the best written books I have ever read. I don't think it matters if this is not your genre. The quality of the writing is so good, the characters so real, and the struggle for humanity within Hack so compelling, I believe this book would appeal to far more than war buffs. In fact, I am deciding which Matheson book to try next myself, knowing there is nothing in a genre I would normally read. His talent is so great, I am willing to try anything he has written. I known he is not an unknown author, but I am quite surprised he is not better known than he is. I am basing this on only two books, but I now think he was one of the very best authors of the last century. So my recommendation is simple - whatever your usual genre- read this.