These early, ingenuous, in some cases inchoate tales will do nothing to enhance their author's considerable reputation. As expressions of Böll's liberal humanitarian saeva indignatio, they only prefigure the more fully developed criticisms of German militarism and materialism that dominatedand, it should be admitted, often hamstrungeven such generally admired novels as The Clown (1965) and Billiards at Half-Past Nine (1962). Here, Böll is sketching the effects both on the battlefield and behind the frontlines of a war-oriented nation on its afflicted citizenry. For example, in the last and longest of these stories, "Paradise Lost" (the torso of an unwritten novel), a veteran's return to the home of a woman he had briefly loved before the war teaches him that he was but a small, and forgettable, part of her life. In "The Mad Dog," a compassionate chaplain laments the brutalization that turned a promising youth into a "murdered murderer," as he tells the latter's story to the weary doctor who has pronounced him dead. Another chaplain, in "The Fugitive," betrays a trusting runaway to the soldiers who hunt him down. And the earliest story, "Youth on Fire," reduces its intriguing premise about the mingled consolations and evasions of formal religion to a pastiche of Dostoyevsky featuring an oversensitive young man and a saintly prostitute. All the pieces are written in a headlong, accusatory style clogged with excess use of modifiers, as in the following (all too typical) example: "The ragged, filthy figure in greasy denim was a bizarre sight, with tousled dirty hair and ravenous hunger in his large, gray, oddly gleaming eyes."
No writer should be judged by his weakest work, however, and this nondescript volume should be taken for exactly what it is: apprentice fiction, of minimal interest to all but Böll's most uncritical admirers.