Apprenticeship of Stefan Varek
By Robert Bruce Drynan
Book Review by Mark Sconce
Robert Bruce Drynan
I came favorably disposed to the Apprenticeship of Stefan Varek having met Marine Master Sergeant Varek in several other Drynan tales where he often appears in time to save an otherwise hopeless situation. Varek “…charged out of his hiding place, across the short distance to the gunman and drove the knife to the hilt in his abdomen. Varek sawed the serrated blade up into the man’s guts and spilled them onto his knees.” (Domain of the Scorpion, psychological/thriller, 2009).
In Drynan’s book of short stories, The Phoenix, Varek makes a cameo appearance as a Gunnery Sergeant in Korea. Besides organizing an orderly retreat in the face of overwhelming Chinese forces, he attempts to calm “the paralyzing fear of first combat” felt by a young soldier whose father died in battle. “Don’t worry, son, I’ll see you through this. I owe that to your old man.”
I cannot recommend this book—enough—if you’re a WWII vet or buff steeped in the lore and legend of Pacific theatre battles, or if you like to savor the military nomenclature of each and every weapon Sgt. Varek sees, hears and uses or, especially, if you can sing the second verse of “Bomb, bomb, bomb Tehran.” For make no mistake; master story-teller Robert Drynan is an ex-Marine whose military experience reshaped his view of duty and of country. He’s gung ho just like Varek but with this proviso:
The Soldier does not fight to follow the orders of his officers/Not for the flags, not for patriotism, not the common folk/Not for his mother, not sons and brothers, nor a lover—/He fights only for his comrades in arms and to survive.
I found somewhat disconcerting, given his central Euro-background, that Stefan speaks without an accent, in perfect American tones and even uses soldierly idioms and jargon as though he had grown up Stateside. On the other hand, you try to duplicate a Bohemian accent on paper!
But apprentice Stefan Varek, like Athena sprung from Zeus’s skull fully grown and clad in a full set of armor, is a Marine through and through from age 18 on. He thinks clearly, speaks well, shoots accurately, and leads his charges unerringly through the steaming jungles of Java desperately trying to avoid the invading Japanese. One of his charges is Maggie, a nurse and love interest. Wait till you read what she makes Stefan promise!
Inevitably, there are clashes with Japanese soldiers. “He came to his knees preparing to rise. A second Jap soldier almost stepped on him. The Jap’s eyes went wide. Stefan rose swiftly and thrust his bayonet into the enemy soldier’s chest, drove forward until the man sprawled on his back, gurgling…and dying on the end of his rifle.”
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