Feel battle inside minds of World War II soldiers

FICTION

"Peace" by Richard Bausch. Knopf. 171 pages. $19.95

Bottom line: Short, perfect novel about American soldiers on patrol during World War II.

In hostile terrain on a cold, wet night, three young American soldiers, accompanied by a guide of uncertain loyalties, struggle to see what their enemy is doing —- withdrawing or waiting in ambush?

The place is the Italian peninsula south of Rome. The year is 1944. And in this short, perfect novel, Richard Bausch ("Hello to the Cannibals," "Thanksgiving Night") slips you so smoothly and unnervingly into the world of these soldiers on patrol that you won't quite know how you got there.

That feeling of bewildering sudden arrival is apt, because that's how the soldiers experience it, too. Their sense of being marooned from their former lives is acute, especially after they witness a possible war crime committed by one of their own.

Cpl. Robert Marson is the leader of the patrol and the most reflective of the trio. He appears to be based on Bausch's father, a World War II veteran of campaigns in Africa and Italy whom the book commemorates. Certainly the details feel less like something lifted from the historical record than something confided from a private place.

As Saul Asch, one of the two soldiers under Marson's command, puts it: "I got enough bad imagery in my head to last two lifetimes."

The third soldier is Benny Joyner, an escapee from farm life in Michigan. He's the irritant, making bigoted gibes (Asch is Jewish) and continually protesting Marson's orders.

As for the guide, he's an old Italian caught fleeing south, "trying to ride with his little life away from the war." Angelo speaks a smidgen of English, seems to know the terrain and is willing, under gunpoint, to lead the patrol up a "hill" (actually a mountain) to a vantage point where they can get a more reliable angle on German activities.

If the three Americans seem jumpy around him, there's good reason. The previous day, two of their company were killed by a German being smuggled in a hay cart driven by two Italian farmers much like Angelo.

Bausch, through compact flashbacks and spare commentary, gets you right inside the soldiers' minds and situation. His narrative moves like a cat on the hunt: supple and strong, without an ounce of energy wasted. There's heroism here, but there's also uncertainty and discord.

To soldiers at the time, Bausch suggests, the "good war" had shadings we're not disposed to remember 60-odd years later. There was the ambiguity of Italian allegiances to start with —- and other factors, too.

"This is not ideas we're fighting about, here" Asch says. "They don't like Jews at home either."

The physical adventure of getting up the mountain and back down provides one narrative arc. But what makes "Peace" extraordinary is Bausch's rendering of the inward dislocations of the men, especially Marson, whose recollection of his "real" life at home grows ever less credible to him: "It no longer carried with it the weight of memory but was marbled with the insubstantial feeling of imagination."

How Marson and his fellow soldiers find their way back to their former selves, and what they'll do to get there, is the crux of "Peace."