Montgomery Clift's character in From Here to Eternity did everything he could to avoid recruitment to an army regimental boxing team. For Vietnam draftee Charles Levine, on the other hand, army sports were his saving grace.
Levine grew up in Sacramento, Calif., with a singular passion for baseball. As the Vietnam War escalated and he reached fighting age, he tried to avoid conscription without becoming a draft dodger, first by joining the National Guard and then by feigning poor mental health. Still, he was unsuccessful. His memoir, Mannheim, builds from the moment in his life when unexpected good fortune intersects with his less-than-happy fate.
While being inducted into the army, a lieutenant prods Levine to divulge the skills that would determine his assignment. In an attempt to portray himself as unfit for combat, Levine lets on only that he plays baseball, not knowing that the army invested in its own athletic programs for inter-regimental competition. While the rest of his 40-member platoon is sent straight to Vietnam after Infantry training, the lieutenant arranges for Levine to fly to Mannheim, Germany, to play ball for the army.
In brisk, quick-moving chapters, Mannheim covers a lot of ground, from Levine's early life in California to his time in Germany, followed by a few gritty years in New York City and his eventual success as a West Coast entrepreneur. The setting of the army base and the backdrop of the Vietnam War function, Levine says, as "a stage for a moving character study about a baby boomer who discovers himself late in life," though the book originated from Levine's desire to explain his life to his children. About the writing process, he says that connecting the "scattered puzzle pieces" of his past that he'd shared with them over the years "provided an opportunity to assemble the parts in a permanent, logical way."
As a memoir, Mannheim offers an interesting twist on the Nick Carraway/Jay Gatsby dynamic that F. Scott Fitzgerald enshrined in his classic novel The Great Gatsby. When the army baseball season ends and the threat of Vietnam deployment looms once again, Levine finds comfort in a new saving grace: friendship with a fellow soldier, named David Craver, who ranks higher in intellect than most of the men he's forced to spend his time with. Craver introduces Levine to books, and reading becomes a productive escape from the boredom, danger, and absurdity of army life where, Levine says, "there was nothing to do between dinner and the sounding of taps other than to play cards, fight, listen to music, fight over that, and insult one another."
In addition to reading and discussing books, Craver and Levine often sneak away from the base, crawling through holes cut in the fence and slithering across the ground out of view of the military police. Like Montgomery Clift's Pvt. Prewitt and friends, they seek alcohol and the company of women, and they don't always know where they stand in relation to others. Levine also frequently doubts himself in comparison to the charming, Gatsby-like Craver, and when he can't make a date with a girl he's just met and fallen for, he masochistically suggests that Craver go in his place.
For Levine, life after the army is full of freedom and self-determination, though it takes him a long time to overcome his insecurity. In the process, memories of his long-lost friend, David, started to surface. "I began to think back to my time in Mannheim and my friendship with David Craver, a bond that puzzled me at times, but one I had never doubted," Levine says. His search for his old friend is a touching revelation for anyone who has ever wondered what others thought of them. The book also leaves the reader with intriguing questions about which of these two men was more like Gatsby after all.