Book Review: John J. Dwyer’s novel “Mustang: A Novel of World War II” is magnificent
By Darla Shelden on July 3, 2019
Patrick B. McGuigan, Editor and Publisher
The story of Lance Roark, son of pacifist Mennonites in western Oklahoma, began in John J. Dwyer’s novel, “Shortgrass.” That 2017 novel introduced readers to a peaceful enclave of western Oklahoma, where whites of primarily Germanic ancestry lived in relative harmony with Comanches and other Native American tribes, as the varied peoples sought a hopeful future on the once-verdant plains.
His first love was an Indian girl, before he heads off to the big city. Lance is drawn toward the skies as American aviation begins to prosper in the 1930s.
As the tale evolves and climate change transforms once-verdant plains into a Dust Bowl, the Great Depression intensifies. Population in the region declines precipitously. Lance has success, including on the Gridiron, at the University of Oklahoma, where his second love is the daughter of a powerful oil and gas magnate.
When the stirring first installment of Lance’s story wrapped up, he was on the verge of heroic service in the U.S. Army Air Force. It might be helpful but is not essential to read the first book before this one.
In “Mustang: A Novel of World War II,” Lance becomes an indispensable cog in the American war machine, serving most of the conflict based in England. He meets and falls in love with an innocent Irish lass. They are secretly wed, giving him periods of peace as his success mounts in piloting the legendary B-17 “Flying Fortress.”
As comrades are taken in the ravages of conflict, he begins to hate – contrary to his deeply Christian upraising – the enemies of his country. A special animus is reserved for “the Black Knight” – a “Red Barron” (World War I) styled character – who wreaks havoc on allied warriors, even as the tide begins to shift in favor of the Allies, and against the Axis Powers led by Nazi Germany.
A horrible personal loss leaves Lance bereft of hope, other than to inflict maximum damage on the foe. The deeply embittered pilot loses his former self, to concentrate on war and its ways.
The greatest American war novel?
Not to start a fight, but a conversation: “Mustang” may be the greatest American war novel since “The Red Badge of Courage.”
The story includes remarkable depictions of aerial combat, especially in sequences that take place after he shifts to the Mustang P-51, an amazing (for that generation) aircraft that made the U.S. competitive with Germany even as the evil regime developed early-day jet fighters.
Like Stephen Crane’s “Red Badge,” Dwyer’s novel delivers compelling details about the impact of war-fighting on an individual human soul. Shocking descriptions are rendered of what actually happens in combat – in the air, rather than in ground combat. But Mustang includes (be advised) horrific passages about the results of the western Allies’ raid on Dresden near the war’s end. The author makes clear that Dresden was not a vital military target, but rather means to shatter remaining resistance, and send a message to the Soviet Red Army.
The novel’s focus is Lance — his nightmarish experiences, his interior hopes and despair. Those are the heart of this story. But as in all great literature, the author reaches to higher and eternal themes in the course of a stirring tale.
An Army Air Force doctor tells Lance, who eschews the designation of “hero” after his time in combat, that “both his external and internal tanks” are on empty. He is granted his desire, to return stateside and end his military service.
Men of War, Woman of Peace
As for those higher themes, Dwyer relates a fact-based incident. American warriors bone-weary of conflict and emotionally drained, encounter, over cups of coffee, a messenger of peace. If this seems like a spoiler, jump to the last paragraph.
It is 1945, and one of the seasoned combat veterans around the table at a New York diner is John F. Kennedy (who made a memorable cameo appearance in “Shortgrass”). He is still in pain from wounds suffered in the Pacific War. Roark and others listen as JFK talks with a woman sitting with the war-scarred vets to talk, commiserate and challenge.
The woman is an American anti-war activist of the middle Twentieth Century. Although he carries a flask of liquor in his pocket, Lance sticks to coffee as he becomes absorbed with the conversation.
Kennedy defends the almost-over war, even as the lady tells him and the others “there are Pearl Harbors every day … in America and throughout the world.” Kennedy responds deftly, pointing to an incident where a co-worker saved the woman from certain harm, earlier in the day, at the nearby Catholic Worker House.
The conversation deepens when she evokes (and Kennedy would have understood the reference) early Christian writer Tertullian: “The Lord, in disarming Peter, unbelted every soldier.” For every point the brave men make in defense of war, she charitably offers Christ, not criticism. In mere paragraphs (three pages of text), Dwyer’s narrative captures an eternal debate within Christianity, and Catholicism.
After Kennedy explains the reason for war, she answers with love: “I know … Jack. I also know your worst injuries are unseen – your back, your pain, walking at all. And I know … about your brother.” (The latter is a reference is to the oldest Kennedy brother, Joseph, killed in combat.)
She tells the future president, “We love our country, dear Jack.” To love God, she argues, “we must be about the works of mercy rather than the works of war.”
When the discussion ends, she walks away, nothing of the superior or distant liberal intellectual in her words. She spoke to the men of combat with respect, and affection.
In Dwyer’s imaginative rendering, “the half-century old woman slogged through the snowbound night, a cheap scarf over her uncolored hair.”
Lance had disagreed with every point she made, but respected her passion. Then he remembers, in a shock of recognition, where and when he had first read and heard about the woman — Dorothy Day. During a brief visit with his family, a sojourn of peace, his dear mother remarked that Day was “the most like Jesus of any woman I ever saw.”
That memory restored in Lance’s mind, he hears the future president, John Fitzgerald Kennedy, reflect (in Dwyer’s deft use of dialect): “I think we shall have wahs until such a day as the conscientious objectah enjoys the same reputation and prestige that the wahya does today.” (“I think we shall have wars until such a day as the conscientious objector enjoys the same reputation and prestige that the warrior does today.” Kennedy actually said it in later years.)
Complete information on the book follows: “Mustang – A Novel of World War II,” John J. Dwyer, Tiree Press | May 2019, Hardcover 312 pages | ISBN-10: 1633734277 | ISBN-13: 978-1633734272 johnjdwyer.com.
“Mustang” is magnificent. If you read only one novel this summer, this should be the one.
NOTE: Pat McGuigan’s review of Dwyer’s new novel first appeared in the July 2019 print edition of The City Sentinel.