Why on earth would a college graduate volunteer for the armed forces, is the question subtending this story (it is asked in numerous different ways of more than one person, but only once directly). Even if most privates almost necessarily do not have such an education, the reasons for risking one's physical and mental well-being for flag and country are so variegated as to render the query useless. Some join for the adventure; some for the escape (not quite the same as the adventure, which may involve a wholly positive desire); some for the funding that will allow them, in time, also to become college graduates; some because their ancestors have always been soldiers, and ancestor worship is the most fundamental form of honor; some, we hope not many, because they admire gunmanship and destruction of nameless foes; and some, doubtless, who are indeed patriotic, a wonderful word that in recent decades has been diminished by a consanguineous term, nationalist. A phrase-book might instruct you that patriotism involves pride in one's country of origin, while nationalism suggests feelings of protective superiority, but I do not often if ever consult phrase-books. And in the most ethnically diverse country in the world, your patriotism and my nationalism may well reflect precisely the same sentiment.
The place is Fort Roach, Louisiana, and the year is "back around mid-July of '57," when even fewer of us were lucky enough to have completed work at a higher institution of learning. One war of sorts has just been concluded on a distant peninsula whose strife persists to this day; and we should not forget, we cannot forget what happened to the previous generation of Europe and much of non-Europe. In this setting, we meet Nathan Levine, our lodestar through what will be designated as a swamp, if a swamp that has become a shrine to death:
Nathan "Lardass" Levine, specialist 3/C, had been assigned to the same battalion, the same company, the same bunk, for thirteen months now, going on fourteen. Roach being the kind of installation it was, this circumstance might have driven more ordinary men to the point of suicide or at least insanity; indeed, according to certain more or less suppressed army statistics, it often did. Levine, however, was not quite ordinary. He was one of the few men outside of those bucking for section eight who actually liked Ft. Roach. He had quietly and unobtrusively gone native: the angular edges of his Bronx accent had been dulled and softened into a modified drawl; he had found that white lightning, usually straight or else mixed with whatever happened to be coming out of the company Coke machine at the time, was in its way as agreeable as scotch on the rocks; he now listened to hillbilly groups in bars in the neighboring towns as raptly as he had once dug Lester Young or Gerry Mulligan at Birdland. He was well over six feet and loose-jointed, but what certain co-eds at City had once described as a plowboy physique, rawboned and taut-muscled, had run to flab after three years of avoiding work details. He had a fine beer belly now, in which he maintained a certain pride, and a large behind which he was not so proud of, which had earned him his nickname.
"Run to flab" is so marvelous an image that the rest of the passage could be middling and still enjoyable – but our fictitious flabster is far from middling. In short order Levine is dispatched with a gaggle of other soldiers, including one, Pierce, who attended a far more prestigious university than he did (nevertheless, it is Levine who is accorded "the highest I.Q. in the damn battalion"), to a hideous assignment: the removal of corpses from a small gulf coast village misinformed about a hurricane's landfall. For "ten hours" a day, then, Levine aids in "picking up stiffs," including one impaled upon a barbed wire fence that does something he could not expect. The barbed wire, the very obvious detail that Levine is a Jew, his (reciprocated) interest in "Buttercup," a blonde waitress with a "slight Rebel accent," and the image of innocent and utter death should remind a reader, even more now than at the time of the story's publication, of the particular horror that occurred in Europe. This image remains a shadow, however, if a long one, and allows us to comprehend why Levine would feel so comfortable in surroundings so alien. Alien unless one accepts that surroundings, be they clothes, a city, or a language, do not make a man – but this is an argument for another day.
That The Small Rain is this author's first work may not surprise his completists, who perhaps would be loath to welcome its similarities with the literary output of another writer. But this latter point should not be surprising at all. Consider Salinger's preeminence in the late fifties, his prolongation of a won war through tales so harrowing in their implications and consequences that no one ever needed to read about a bloody battle again, and you have a sense of his will imposed upon American literature. For my part, I likely have not read enough Pynchon (my boredom with this novel will surely apostatize me) to comment with adamantine authority. So I will leave the commentary to the author himself, or, I should say, to his beloved specialist from the Bronx:
What I mean is something like a closed circuit. Everybody on the same frequency. And after a while you forget about the rest of the spectrum and start believing that this is the only frequency that counts or is real. While outside, all up and down the land, these are the wonderful colors and x-rays and ultraviolets going on.
The immediate reference appears to be the military, but it can appertain to any thinking collective, any mission, program, or system of belief. For some people being in a closed circuit spares them the rather onerous task of developing their own values and personality, thus staving off the persistent fear that there might not be very much to develop. As it were, Levine endures the squalor without too much of Esmé, although that precocious, verbose little child would have nothing much to share with Buttercup. And what of our title? One, simple explanation is provided, and we may nod our heads in slight disappointment (I will not disappoint you in advance), but the clever reader can think of many others. Some well outside a closed circuit.