“This is the way it really happened,” says Private Harry Waddell of Company K, a 1933 novel by William March, born William Edward Campbell, whose U.S. Marine Corps combat honors are outnumbered only by his subsequent literary awards. Composed of 113 flash fictions, each of which follows a member of the eponymous military outfit, Company K earns its novel billing as it makes a hard break from war writing traditions to explore form, subject, and narrative tone in unexpected ways. Far from the poetry of Homer, the grandeur of Tolstoy, or the protagonist-driven narratives of his genre contemporaries, March relates his war novel in pieces—a fragmentary approach to the novel that wouldn’t really catch on in American prose until the middle of the century.
March asks the reader to investigate the parts as the whole of Company K assembles itself in chronological order from training to wartime to its aftermath and readjustment. Each story is titled after the rank and name of its focal character—at once individual and an essential part of the whole—and the imagery in many of these stories calls attention to the fractured structure of the novel at large. Private Lawrence Dickson becomes obsessed with scraps of a letter found in Belleau Wood. Private Howard Virtue feigns insanity by picking up dead leaves as if they were the shredded remains of his discharge papers. Private Sylvester Wendell writes an all-too-honest letter to the parents of a fallen comrade before tearing it to pieces. And when Private Richard Mundy wants to take his mind from the horror of his experiences, he takes apart his rifle. The irony, of course, is that the fragmentary always signals back toward that which these men want so desperately to avoid—the hardships of war.
Company K does not shy from or romanticize the unpleasantness of wartime experiences but often leans into the savagery, absurdity, and futility of armed conflict with a colloquial confidence that makes its stories approachable in language and nearly unbearable in proximity and fealty to subject. “I never want to hear military music or high sounding words again,” cries the Unknown Soldier. March is fearless in his approach to such inglorious matters as execution, cowardice, and prostitution, and brutal as his lens may be, it also shows the softness of the French countryside through Private Martin Daily, the playfulness of youth through Private Rowland Geers, and the beauty in the night sky through Private Martin Appleton, even as stars are muddied with rockets and flares. These stories spare no truth of the human experience at war—each a shot from a rifle, fast and forceful and aimed at the heart. “You see, the men were so far away, it didn’t feel like killing anybody, really,” says Sergeant Wilbur Tietjen, a sniper and perfect vehicle for March’s signature irony. “In fact I never thought of them as men, but as dolls, and it was hard to believe anything as small as that could feel pain or sorrow.”
Christopher Notarnicola served with the United States Marine Corps before receiving his MFA in creative writing from Florida Atlantic University. His work has been published with Best American Essays, Bellevue Literary Review, Consequence Magazine, Hobart, Hotel Amerika, Image, North American Review, The Southampton Review, and elsewhere. Find him in Pompano Beach, Florida and at christophernotarnicola.com.