Ivan Doig

"The Eleventh Man"

(Reviewed by Kirstin Merrihew DEC 23, 2008)

"Death in war was thought to be a random harvest, but the outsize crop of young lives taken here made a person wonder. Bill Reinking had always said the so-called war to end all wars drained a generation of lifeblood out of Montana. About like this, his son thought to himself as he turned back to the graveside service."

War is no respecter of persons or their plans. It doesn't play by the rules. Even the law of averages is only a guideline that can become grotesquely twisted. Ben Reinking was one of the "Supreme Team" of Montana's Treasure State University "whose combined destiny began one afternoon in 1941 on a windblown football field, and from there swirled into the fortunes of war." The former teammates all served their country, and took strength and solace in reassuring statistics forecasting that one or two or them might fall but, eventually, most of their number would return home and continue on with their lives. However, what if this "fabled" eleven became the plaything of a fate all out of proportion to the odds on which they relied? What if this group hung out on the edge of the probability bell curve where "bitter arithmetic" held sway?

The Eleventh Man is Ivan Doig's fictional meditation on the perplexing question of why, if the encompassing survival rate was 90% plus for American active combatants, a group might suffer far higher mortality. Was it possible that fate was being "assisted" in part by manipulations by some with power and influence? Alternatively, could there be some organizing factor, some weird intelligent design, so to speak, herding the outcome? Or was it solely a matter of the universe playing dice?

The novel's disquieting premise is underpinned with some real facts Doig gathered: Montana's World War II death rate was the second highest in the nation, and Montana State College in Bozeman had eleven former football starters whose cumulative mortality rate nearly twinned those of Doig's "Supreme Team."

The novel is also a chance to explore unsung battle theaters and underpublicized war arrangements. Ben was the talented wordsmith son of Bill, the newspaper editor in the small town of Gros Ventre. Ben wanted to train as an Army Air Corps pilot along with his buddy, Jake Eisman, but the Threshold Press War Project, or "Tepee Weepy" as Ben referred to that military news organization, commandeered him. Ben became a war correspondent whose primary mission was to write about his former teammates. Tepee Weepy (a Doig fictional stand-in for the actual Office of War Information's news arms) intended to use the Supreme Team as a public "morale" tool. Since the men were stationed in various combat zones around the globe, Ben traveled far and wide to interview them. But they didn't take part in the hallmarks of the war we now recall most such as D-Day in Europe.

Instead, Jake, for example, flew Lend Lease B-17 Flying Fortress bombers to Alaska where the planes were turned over to Soviet pilots. In one of his most interesting adventures, Ben hitched a ride in the Plexiglas nose cone of a bomber Jake delivered. Once on the ground in Nome, Ben met some of the "Cossack" combat pilots, including Katya, Jake's "Russian tail." After their layover, Jake and Ben set out on a return course to the Air Transport Command at East Base (later known as Malstrom Air Force Base, Montana) in a rundown Grumman Widgeon, Jake even let Ben exercise his rusty basic piloting skills in good weather and over easy terrain. But on the last leg of their journey, a gravel runway was more than a match for the little bush plane. To try another takeoff, the men got very creative. The suspense mounts beautifully in this story.

Ben also traveled to the Olympic Peninsula near La Push, Washington to patrol isolated headlands with Sigmund Prokosch, Seaman Second Class, U.S. Coastguard. Ordinarily Sig had only a dog to keep him company as he kept watch for Japanese submarines at sea, the chance of some offloads onto land from those subs, and balloon bombs that could set the vast forests ablaze. (The Japanese, by the way, did actually hazard our Northwest coast, although mainly earlier in the war than the book indicates.) Sig was engaged. She was called Ruby, and when Sig said her name, Ben thought "the word glowed as if it were her namesake gem. Love and the salt taste of absence, old as Odysseus...."

Sig wasn't the only one in love. At East Base, a squadron of women pilots test flew various planes for the Air Transport Command (yes, this female squadron was based on real history too). Captain Cass Standish was their leader. She was also Ben's lover. Her husband, a Montaneer, had been off fighting Japs in the Pacific jungles while she, a WASP, served in this unusual female duty stateside. As Ben put it, " 'Cass and I didn't set out to cheat on her husband...Just the opposite, at first -- we gave each other the porcupine treatment. Then we got to talking, just stuff. Next thing we knew...we couldn't live without each other." What would they do if and when the Montaneer returned?

And before the novel caught up with Ben and told his ongoing story during both '43 and '44, he had already been wounded in the Pacific theater, although not too seriously. By then too, former teammate Vic Rennie had lost a leg, and two others of the eleven had been killed outright in action. During the novel, Ben was ordered to such diverse places as Guam (hitching a ride there on a destroyer) where he, patterned after an actual Marine combat correspondent, made an historic audio tape recording of the invasion as it chaotically spilled forth around him. He also went to a smoke jumper's camp right in Montana where conscientious objectors were housed. And to Antwerp, Belgium where, in 1944, the Germans had withdrawn without destroying the harbor and belatedly tried to do the job with buzz bombs. His gridiron buddies continued to die, sometimes within almost arm's reach, more often far away. They died casualties of war, but generally not in grandly heroic circumstances, and rather than wondering if the law of averages for combat mortality was merely being stretched, the reader becomes increasingly anxious that all members of the Supreme Team might perish. Who will survive?

The Eleventh Man is a work that requires attention. It doesn't have an easily accessible structure. Especially at the beginning, it jumps fitfully from one scene to another, sometimes shifting in time and place without comforting the reader with adequate background. For instance, one has to accept the proposition that the Supreme Team is really a special group because very little of the teammates' gridiron bonding is explored, even in retrospection. The formative crux of their football career had to do with a twelfth man whose heart gave out when he ran too many times up a steep hill. Was that death due to overexuberance by a wannabe player, hazing, or something else?

As the reader progresses into the heart of the novel, however, its themes and characters emerge and carry one along. Ben, his parents, Cass and her squadron, the irascible senator, and guys like Jake and Sig matter. So, when Doig dispatches certain people in a hurry towards the end, one gets the feeling the author was tired and just wanted to finish. It seems a bit of a cheat. Perhaps, going back to the book's structure, Doig ought to have developed more up front and at the end, while trimming some of his verbiage; some passages could get their points across with fewer sentences.

In fact, the novel's language is a two-edged sword. Doig's poetic streak gifts the reader with some poignant moments...as when Bill drove home from a funeral service with his wife, Cloyce. He composed a stirring piece about the blue service star in a family's window turning gold. And the tribute to Sig's fiancee, Ruby, is another echo of poetic prose that pierces the heart. Yet, The Eleventh Man sometimes bogs down the reader in awkward phrasing or rat-a-tat dialogue that is presumably meant to reinforce both the time and place and hep up the "with it" element. Perhaps though that is less a criticism of Doig's writing style than the vernacular of the day?

There is a funky schizophrenic tone to the book too. On the one hand, the subject matter couldn't be sterner stuff: the human costs of war, to put it in a nutshell. On the other hand, the novel radiates an ironic vibe too. It's almost as if the joke the cosmos is playing by repudiating the law of averages invites a jab of rebellion from Doig -- as if to say, "Hey, two can play this silly game." Was Ben, when he grew suspicious of how Tepee Weepy might have been a dangerous puppeteer in the destiny of the Supreme Team, raising familiar worries about current government manipulation? Or has he just letting his overworked imagination run away with him? The sardonic undertone tend to cut the gravity, the solemnity, of the greater theme, namely that the vagaries controlling life and death don't fall into neat, explainable cubbyholes. We don't comprehend the ground rules from which we, and everything else, have issued. We try desperately to assign order and laws to our tenuous situation, but in the end, we still haven't cracked the code. The "bitter arithmetic" plays by rules we don't yet understand.

The Eleventh Man is a worthy, meaty novel. It isn't without shortcomings, but it deserves to be read for its metaphysical ponderings, for its remarkable reconnection with some facts about World War II that many have forgotten or never yet learned, and for memorable characters.

  • Amazon readers rating: from 20 reviews

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About the Author:

Ivan DoigIvan Doig was born in 1939 in White Sulpher Springs, Montana to a family of homesteaders and ranch hands. After the death of his mother Berneta, on his sixth birthday, he was raised by his father Charles "Charlie" Doig and his grandmother Elizabeth "Bessie" Ringer. After several stints on ranches, they moved to Dupuyer, Pondera County, Montana in the north to herd sheep close to the Rocky Mountain Front.

After his graduation from Valier high school, Doig attended Northwestern University, where he received a bachelor's degree and a master's degree in journalism. He later earned a Ph.D. in American history at the University of Washington.

Before Ivan Doig became a novelist, he wrote for newspapers and magazines as a free-lancer and worked for the United States Forest Service. Much of his fiction is set in the Montana country of his youth. His major theme is family life in the past, mixing personal memory and regional history. As the western landscape and people play an important role in his fiction, he has been hailed as the new dean of western literature.

He lives in Seattle, Washington.

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