Vance Bourjaily’s classic novel of World War II dramatizes an entire generation’s loss of innocence
When Thomas “Skinner” Galt leaves Greenwich Village to volunteer as an ambulance driver with the British Army, he anticipates the adventure of a lifetime. What he fails to understand is that no matter where he comes from or how many books he has read, once he dons a military uniform, his life will cease to be his own.
Stationed first in the Middle East and then in Italy, Skinner and his fellow American volunteers, Rod, Freak, and Benny, endure boredom, fear, and the exquisite frustration of following orders. They seek solace in their friendship with one another and in the debauched diversions available to men during wartime. But as the days and nights drag on, Skinner begins to drift away from his comrades—and from himself. Too late, he discovers that the path he has chosen leads only to tragedy.
Inspired by Vance Bourjaily’s experiences as an ambulance driver in the American Field Service and commissioned by legendary editor Maxwell Perkins, The End of My Life marked the arrival of a writer heralded by the New York Times as “a Dostoevsky of the generation that came of age in World War II.” Elegant, spare, and fiercely honest, this is a timeless portrait of the devastating effects of war on the human spirit.
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About the Author
A longtime teacher at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and the University of Arizona, Bourjaily was the first director of the master of fine arts program in creative writing at Louisiana State University.
Read an Excerpt
The End of My Life
By Vance Bourjaily
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1975 Vance Bourjaily
All rights reserved.
Later, thinking back, Skinner would remember it as a time when neither of them had spoken. He kept saying things, to be saying them, and she answered him, but it was as if the conversation made no sound in the room.
He moved around the apartment, doing the final things, putting razor and toothbrush into the musette bag, along with a couple of books for the first days, before the luggage would be brought up from the hold. He packed the little bag very carefully, frowning over the folding and arrangement, trying to look at Cindy no more often than he would if packing a musette bag were a part of every morning's routine.
She sat on one of the day-beds, watching him, not trying to pretend to do anything else, and when he let their eyes meet, they smiled at one another. During the night they had said all there was to say, and if they had started to say any of it over, they would have had to say it all.
Finally, he put the strap of the musette over his head, so that it stretched across his chest and rode on his left hip, put on his cap, checking in the mirror to see that it tilted correctly, walked over to the day-bed and held out his hands for her. She took them, pulled herself up standing, and smiled.
"Right," he said, and kissed her.
They walked to the door, went out without turning around to look, and Skinner caught the knob and pulled the door shut after them, still without turning around. They went down the stairs side by side, arms around one another, Skinner shortening his stride to hit each step on the way down, as she did.
"We'll get breakfast at the corner," he said.
They walked to the corner, past a little restaurant not yet opened for the day, at which they had often eaten, and on into the drugstore.
"Coffee's all I want," Skinner said, as they sat at the counter, and waited for the girl to come and take their order.
"You should have orange juice, and toast, too."
"So should you, darling."
"We both will."
"How will you get down?" She asked him.
"Subway. There's no sense taking a cab."
"Yes. At Fourteenth Street. Downtown Express. One red light and one white one. You're going to Jane's?"
"Yes. She's leaving the key for me. I guess I'll move back in with her."
"You can take the subway at Fourteenth Street, too."
"Right," said Cindy. "Uptown Express. But I don't know what color the lights will be."
"Be sure to watch for them, darling," Skinner said. "The color of lights is awfully important."
"Awfully," she agreed.
She picked up the last half-slice of toast, held it out, and sat looking at it. He watched her for a moment, then reached over, took the toast from her, and put it back on the plate. They eased around on the counter-stools to look at one another, and smiled wry smiles; he took her hand and squeezed it.
"Triangular toast," he said. "Damned foolishness."
"I know," she replied. "But Euclid would have loved it."
They swung back facing the counter to drink their coffee. After a moment, she said, quite seriously,
"Didn't they let women into this in the last war?"
"I don't know. There were some women driving ambulances, but it may have been a different outfit. They did very well."
"The women did well?"
"Sure. Everybody did well. Everybody was magnificent in the last war."
"Why can't we go this time?"
"I don't know. There are other ways you could get across. The Red Cross sends people; and they send entertainers. Actresses."
"I don't care anything about just getting across. Would they promise to send me where you were?"
"I doubt it, darling. They send people to the Americans. I'll be with the British."
"There are no Americans where you're going?"
"I'm not sure. Some Service troops maybe. Observers. The Americans are all in England." He picked up the checks. "We'd better go, darling."
They slid down from the stools and walked to the cashiers' counter. Waiting for the man to come and take the money, Cindy said: "I'm glad we're not going to write every day."
"Some days I'll write two or three times."
"Some days you won't feel like writing at all."
"I'm glad Benny will be with you."
"Because he's a good guy?" The man came and took the money.
"Yes. And because he'll keep you from being reckless."
They went out of the store. "I won't be reckless, darling," Skinner said.
They walked across Sixth Avenue to the uptown side of Twelfth Street, and towards the subway station, very close together. Skinner kept wanting to put his arm around her, but it seemed better not to. They didn't hold hands, but walked slowly, deliberately keeping out of step, so that his right leg and her left leg moved forward at the same time, and hips and shoulders kept touching, all the way down the long block.
They went into the station, down the stairs, and Skinner put nickels into the turnstile, standing aside for her to go through. At Fourteenth Street, the Uptown and Downtown Express tracks are side by side, with no platform between. They stood one flight above the tracks, watching through the grillwork for the train to come.
Cindy said, "I wish we weren't so cool and modern. I wish I were standing on a dock, waving a handkerchief and weeping."
"I'll think of you that way, if you like."
Skinner's train came first. He waited until it was slowing down. Then he kissed her quickly, and pressed her tightly against him.
"We'll be okay, darling," he said, doubting that she could hear it over the roar of the train that filled the station. And whatever it was she said was lost in the noise, too.
He ran down the stairs to the platform, timing it so that he would make it just as the doors were ready to close, so that she could not follow him down, so that there would be no looking back and waving.CHAPTER 2
Skinner and Freak got the window seats.
Rod sat beside Freak, where he would ride backwards when the train started, and Benny sat beside Skinner. The compartment was designed to seat six, but, with luck, no others would join them.
It was a second-class coach, stemming, Skinner suggested, from the Early Renaissance.
Rod said reflectively, "It looks something like a train."
"I don't think it's a booby trap," Freak offered, "or they would have made it comfortable."
Benny frowned. "It's enemy propaganda. It symbolizes decadent democracy."
Skinner shook his head at them. "You malign beauty; my train is beautiful," he said. "My train is lustrous with beauty. Look at the chandelier." He pointed to a tiny ten watt bulb, screwed into a crooked white porcelain socket in the ceiling.
"The grand manner," Benny agreed, reverently.
There was, consecutively, a jerk, a shudder, and a series of metalic groans as the pull of the engine communicated itself from car to car.
The train moved through the outskirts of Cairo, and Skinner noticed that Freak was the only one of them who looked out of the window. Arabs in ankle-length robes, dark-brown Egyptian business-men in European suits and red tarbushes, women in black, cheesecloth veils—these things seemed inexhaustibly interesting to Freak.
To Skinner they had been interesting until seen once; then they had joined the category of things known. He supposed that Benny had found them interesting until he had analysed them. For Benny, the color and the strangeness would not be so much to be seen as to be seen through, as though there were a general conspiracy in the Middle East to unfamiliarize itself to Western eyes, so as to disguise its poverty. As though an ankle-length robe and a cheesecloth veil pretended to have no equivalents in patched denim and faded gingham.
Skinner looked at Rod, darkly absorbed in his corner, staring at the floor. Neither the interest nor the significance of his surroundings would ever have any importance to Rod. He would simply accept them as he accepted all the other terms of his existence, as not worth either noticing or fighting. When they had gotten off the boat at Port Tewfik ten days before, Rod had seemed uneasy, but only briefly. Waiting on the docks for trucks to come to take them to Cairo, they had heard an Arab street musician playing reedy pipes, and later, in the trucks, driving by a bar with an open front, there had been a quick glimpse of a piano; and seeing these things, Rod had relaxed and said to Skinner, "It's going to be all right."
Half an hour out of Cairo, Skinner closed his book, laid it on the seat, and considered his window.
"This is not going to work," he said, and, pressing the catches at the bottom of the frame, heaved up on it. Surprisingly, it opened. Benny looked up from the pamphlet he was reading, and smiled.
"You've done well, Comrade," he said.
"Do I get the Order of Lenin?" Skinner asked.
"I'll recommend you for it. He on the other hand," pointing to Freak, who was pushing the window on his side up, "gets purged for not thinking of it before you did."
Freak got his window latched into position, and turned back to them. "You've got to purge Rod, too," he said. "For going to sleep."
"Is he really sleeping?" Skinner asked.
"I think so." They were all quiet for a moment, listening to Rod's breathing.
"I'll bet you can't get his necktie off without waking him up," Skinner whispered.
"What'll you bet?" Freak asked.
"That's two beers. Its a bet."
Putting a finger to his lips to shush Skinner and Benny, Freak shifted in his seat so that he half-faced Rod. He leaned across him and put one hand gently on Rod's neck. He slipped his other hand under the necktie. Rod didn't stir. Freak loosened the tie a little, paused, loosened it a little more. When he had the knot about three inches away from the collar, he untied it, working the big end out. Then he began to tug stealthily at it, so that the small end slid slowly up towards the neck. Still Rod didn't stir.
Making sure that Freak was too absorbed to notice him, Skinner reached across the aisle between the seats and pinched Rod sharply on the leg. There was no sign that Rod had felt it.
Skinner looked at Benny, raising an eyebrow; Benny shrugged; and Freak turned back to them, triumphantly waving the necktie. "I win," he said, settling back in the seat, and arranging the tie around the crown of his head like a wreath. "Lacey, the conqueror."
"Hail," said Benny, and, to Skinner, "Render unto Caesar ten piastres."
"Right," said Freak, "Caesar wants his ten piastres." He held out his hand, and Skinner put the note into it, saying,
"Observe that I do this with good grace."
"And," said Rod, dreamily, without opening his eyes, "I do this with excellent grace." He opened his eyes, reached out, and took the ten piastre note away from the astonished Freak. "Half for me, half for you, Caesar, baby," he said, and, getting a smaller note out of his pocket, he handed it to Freak.
"Wonderful," said Benny, exultantly, "a double cross, a triple cross."
"A quadruple cross," said Skinner, jumping up and snatching the tie from Freak's head, "I've got the necktie." He sat down, and let the tie trail out of the window. "Sell you a fine necktie for five piastres, Rodney."
"A quintuple cross," said Rod, sleepily. "It's your necktie."
Just before the train got to Ismalia, another member of the ambulance group stuck his head into the doorway of their compartment.
"You guys can get your rations up in the first compartment if you want," he told them.
"Thanks," Skinner said. "What do we get?"
"Bully beef, bread, cheese, and you can get tea and sugar and canned milk, if you want them."
"But there's no hot water to make the tea with," Benny said. "Right?"
"Right," said the messenger, and withdrew his head from the doorway.
"Maybe we can get some wine at the next station," Freak said.
Benny looked at him disapprovingly. "Wait until such suggestions are made by the older members of the party," he said sternly.
"I'll bet I wouldn't have to wait long," Freak said.
"Hmmmm," said Skinner.
"Hmmmm," said Rod. "Pretty independent youngster, isn't he?"
All three looked at Freak severely.
"We'll have to punish him," Benny said.
"Make him go for rations," Rod suggested.
Freak stood up. He was within a year of being twenty-two, which was Skinner's age, but he had the features and complexion of a half-grown boy. When he grinned, he looked to be about fifteen.
"I don't know what you guys would do without me," he said.
"Get a little rest, maybe," Skinner told him.
"See these lines?" asked Benny, wrinkling his forehead and pointing to it. "All from worrying about you."
"But it's all right," Rod put in. "We'll care for you as if you were our own dear son, dead these many years."
"Nuts," said Freak, starting for the door, "I'm the Papa around this household. Look who's going to bring back the rations." He went out into the aisle.
"A little discipline needed there," Benny said ominously.
"We'll send him to military school next fall," Skinner suggested.
"Sure," said Rod, "there might be a war someday, and he'd have to do his bit."
Freak returned with four cans of bully beef, a small can of cheese, and two long, irregular loaves of British-army-baked white bread. "It doesn't look like much, does it?" He asked, putting the rations beside Benny on the seat.
"We get to Syria tomorrow afternoon," said Skinner. "That makes supper tonight, breakfast and lunch tomorrow."
"We'll be all right," Rod said, "we can buy more stuff at the stations."
"Right," said Benny, "Freak says he's Papa, so we'll let him pay for it."
"Some guys don't care if they never eat," said Freak.
Ismalia is the last town this side of the Suez canal, and, therefore, the last town before the Sinai desert. When they got there it was late afternoon.
Skinner and Rod got out and went into a shop near the station to try to buy wine. Wine was unobtainable. Yes, there was Arak, but he was not permitted to sell it to soldiers. They tried to explain that they were not soldiers at all, but American civilian volunteers who drove ambulances for the British. The distinction was not grasped. After all, they were in uniform, were they not?
Rod claimed an inspiration. He got out his phrase book, and looked up the words for Red Cross.
He pointed to Skinner's arm-band. "Salib Achmar," he said persuasively.
The Egyptian behind the counter shook his head. "No Salib Achmar," he said. "You Englissi soldier both."
Skinner decided the situation was hopeless. He leaned towards the clerk and said, confidentially, "Excuse me, sir, but you stink. Also your country stinks. However, you are quite right. We are not Salib Achmar. We are not Americani or Englissi either." He looked over his shoulder, as if to make sure that no one was listening, and then, stringing together two Arabic phrases he had memorized, he whispered dramatically, "Ana ibn Khalifa Baghdad. Huwwa sharmuta faransawi."
The man burst out laughing. "Kuwayis, kuwayis. (Good, good.)", and sold them a bottle of Arak.
"I'll be damned," said Skinner.
They left the store with the bottle concealed in Skinner's shirt, and started back to the train.
"What on earth did you tell him?" Rod wanted to know.
"Nothing," said Skinner, airily. "I just explained that I was the son of the Caliph of Baghdad, and you were a French whore."
They got back to the compartment without the bottle being detected, and were greeted with admiration by Freak and Benny. The bottle was carefully stowed beneath the seat.
The train started again, pulled out of the station, rumbled along for a moment without gathering speed, and stopped, just outside of town.
"For water," Benny guessed.
"Or to give us a ringside seat, maybe," Skinner said, and pointed out the window to a pair of camels about fifty yards away, quite absorbed in one another. It was quite clear that one was male and the other female.
The male was nibbling clumsily at his partner's neck; then, moving around to the other side, nuzzling her shoulders. She stood docilely, but her spindly legs were trembling, and after a moment she sank onto the sand, frothing slightly at the mouth.
Camels, thought Skinner, watching them, look like something that ought to be extinct, like some strain of puny dinosaur, dwindling and disarmed. Their necks are absurdly long, their bodies absurdly round, their legs absurdly thin. They are covered with ugly patches of shaggy hair; their faces are expressive of a sort of stupid surprise. And their love-making, like the love-making of all other mammals, is essentially comic to the beholder.
The comments in the compartment would not have been considered humorous by the camels.
Suddenly Benny had a thought. "Hey, guys," he cried. "The Freak. We can't let him watch."
Excerpted from The End of My Life by Vance Bourjaily. Copyright © 1975 Vance Bourjaily. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
ContentsPART I A Note on Saying Goodbye,
PART II A Portrait of Jack, Nimble,
PART III A Young Man at Night in an Old City,
PART IV A Portrait of Jack, Quick,
PART V The Old Gag,
PART VI A Portrait of Jack on the Other Side of the Candlestick,
PART VII Jack the Nimble, the Quick, and the Dead,
About the Author,