Muddled and often infuriating, â€œHuman Smokeâ€ sounds its single, solemn note incessantly, like a mallet striking a kettle drum over and over. War is bad. Churchill was bad. Roosevelt was bad. Hitler was bad too, but maybe, in the end, no worse than Roosevelt and Churchill. Jeannette Rankin, a Republican congresswoman from Montana, was good, because she cast the lone vote opposing a declaration of war against Japan. It was Dec. 8, 1941.
Mr. Bakerâ€™s title, a grim reference to the crematoriums at Auschwitz, effectively demolishes the edifice he tries to construct. Did the war â€œhelp anyone who needed help?â€ Mr. Baker asks in a plaintive afterword. The prisoners of Belsen, Dachau and Buchenwald come to mind, as well as untold millions of Russians, Danes, Belgians, Czechs and Poles. Nowhere and at no point does Mr. Baker ever suggest, in any serious way, how their liberation might have been effected other than by force of arms.[. . .]
Writers are free to take on any subject they please. But Mr. Bakerâ€™s decision to tackle World War II seems curious. By talent and temperament, on brilliant display in novels like â€œThe Mezzanineâ€ and â€œVox,â€ he is an obsessive miniaturist, a painter wielding a brush with a single hair. In turning to nonfiction, it was completely in character for him to delve into the intricacies of library card catalogs and newspaper archives, the subject of â€œDouble Fold.â€ War and peace are something else entirely.
He attacks it in little bits and pieces, an approach that allows him a few Bakeresque touches. He notes that a roundup of Italians in Britain netted, on one occasion, â€œthe manager of the Piccadilly Hotel, the head chef of the Cafe Royal and two clowns in the Bertram Mills circus.â€
Elsewhere, mordant humor fails him. The sneering identification of an Allied bomber pilot as â€œa former Australian sheep farmerâ€ seems pointless. Is it absurd, or more reprehensible, if a sheep farmer rather than a dentist or a welder drops the bombs? Outrage sends Mr. Baker racing off in all directions simultaneously. The right emotional tone eludes him.
World War II was a deeply unfortunate conflict in which many lives were lost. Mr. Baker is right about that, but not about much else in this self-important, hand-wringing, moral mess of a book. In dedicating it to the memory of American and British pacifists, Mr. Baker writes, â€œThey failed, but they were right.â€ Millions of ghosts say otherwise.
Better to be criticized widely than ignored, I suppose.