Fluent memoir by a veteran of a war that ended 70 years ago and is swiftly being forgotten.
Born in New Orleans in 1905, Neugass was a man adrift, a published poet who studied mining engineering, archaeology and history at several schools without a degree, then worked for a newspaper in France before returning to the United States, where he worked as a cook, shoe salesman and janitor. In 1937, he volunteered for service in Spain, driving an ambulance through some of the worst fighting of the war. He died of a heart attack in 1949, just after Harper & Brothers accepted his novel Rain of Ashes for publication. It is clear from these pages, edited by Carroll (The Odyssey of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade: Americans in the Spanish Civil War, 1994) and Glazer (Theater, Dance and Performance Studies/Univ. of California, Berkeley)—both associated with the Abraham Lincoln Brigade Archives, which focus on a unit of American socialists and communists who fought for the Spanish Republican government—that Neugass was both a capable writer and a somewhat doctrinaire leftist ("I was unable to enjoy the dancing although, out of a sense of political duty, I danced with Pepita, the ugliest and most carefully gotten-up of the Villa Paz chicas"). Neugass writes carefully of the soldiers with whom he served, such as a Finnish driver who habitually called Francisco Franco a "shon of a bits" and another ambulance crew that kept the dried head of a dead enemy as a kind of mascot. He also has a sense of the bigger picture, of Spain as a proxy war fought between the Axis powers and the Soviet Union. Sometimes telegraphic ("Fascists have big feet. Killed three, five, eight of them. One with knife, otherswith bombs. At night. May have to kill more."), sometimes lyrical, Neugass depicts war from a worm's-eye view. It is most certainly not pretty, but occasionally humorous.
A complement to the memoirs of George Orwell and Ernest Hemingway, as well as Javier Cercas's novel Soldiers of Salamis (2004)—not quite in their league, but not far from it.